The List: The World’s Most Valuable Disputed Turf

Russia astounded the world recently when it sent a submarine to claim the North Pole. But the race to lock up the Arctic’s riches is just one of many hot disputes over valuable or strategic territory around the globe. In this List, FP looks at the real estate that, at least for some countries, just might be worth fighting for.

Russian TV

Russian TV

The Arctic Circle

Whos fighting: Five countriesRussia, Canada, the United States, Denmark (via Greenland), and Norwayclaim territory in the Arctic Circle.

Whats it worth? Billions, potentially. The U.S. Geological Survey reported in 2000 that the Arctic contains around a quarter of the Earths untapped oil and gas reserves. But private energy analysts found in 2006 that the Arctics riches are less than previously thought, and come mainly in the form of hard-to-commercialize natural gas that belongs mostly to Russia. Its not just about energy, though: A U.S. panel projected in 2002 that the coming breakup of Arctic sea ice could open up new areas to commercial fishing. And exporters could save millions in shipping costs if the fabled Northwest Passage becomes commercially viable.

Whos done what: Russia recently drew worldwide attention to its claim to an underwater mountain range called the Lomonosov Ridgean area that could contain up to 10 billion tons of oil and gaswhen two miniature submarines planted Russian flags on the seafloor beneath the North Pole. Canada and Denmark also claim the ridge as well as other Arctic territory, while the United States is disadvantaged because it has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Western energy companies, in the meantime, are gobbling up exploration rights in the Arctic in the hopes that climate change will someday make oil and gas development commercially viable there.


East China Sea

Whos fighting: Both China and Japan claim territory that overlaps near the uninhabited Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, which have been controlled by the Japanese since 1895 (and are also claimed by Taiwan).

Whats it worth? The East China Sea could hold as many as 200 billion cubic meters of natural gas reserves. But its hard to put a price on national pride, which is just as much at stake for many in both countries.

Whos done what: Tokyo has designated a demarcation line in the East China Sea that Beijing disputes, citing historical claims dating from the Ming Dynasty. In principle, though, Japan and China agree that East China Sea gas should be developed jointly. Of course, the devil is in the details. When news broke in 2004 that China was unilaterally developing a gas field near the demarcation line, the Japanese became furious, fearing that the Chinese could deplete reserves on the Japanese side. Later that year, a Chinese submarines foray into Japanese waters put the Japanese fleet on high alert for only the second time since World War II. Seeking to calm the waters, Japan proposed in February of 2007 that the two countries develop a wider area of the East China Sea together, but Chinaa fierce defender of its sovereigntybristled at the suggestion and later offered its own joint development proposal, which the Japanese rejected. A meeting of technical experts in April failed to resolve the dispute.


The Orinoco River Basin

Whos fighting: The Venezuelan government vs. Exxon and ConocoPhillips

Whats it worth? The oil-rich sands of the Orinoco River basin could contain some 270 billion barrels of oil, leaving Venezuela with larger reserves than Saudi Arabia and Canada. Much depends, however, on the price of oil. Since oil sands are expensive to recover and require special refining techniques, they arent commercially viable when crude oil prices dip too low.

Whos done what: Chevron, Total, BP, and Statoil are staying, but Exxon and ConocoPhillips pulled out of Venezuela in June of 2007 after failing to agree on new terms with the Venezuelan government, which seized over $25 billion worth of majority stakes in oil operations in the Orinoco Belt. Both Exxon and ConocoPhillipswhich walked from away investments worth around $6 billionrefused to accept minority shares in their own operations and are still seeking compensation. Its not a total wash, however; the two oil companies are adapting their existing refineries to process similar tar sands from Alberta, Canada.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa

Whos fighting: Iran vs. the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Whats it worth? The islands themselves are of little economic value, but are strategically significant because they sit astride what Arabs call the Arabian Gulf and Iranians call the Persian Gulfwhere roughly 20 percent of the worlds oil passes each day. They are also quite close to several major oil fields. Iran maintains military facilities on Abu Musa.

Whos done what: When the Shah of Iran seized these three tiny islands in 1971, the newly established UAE was too weak to do anything other than protest. Since that time, the Emirates have repeatedly obtained the backing of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, the United States, and even the United Nations. But Iran has only deepened its hold over the islands. As of 1992, UAE citizens require an Iranian visa to travel to them, and the Iranians have interned a few lost European tourists who wandered near Abu Musa in recent years. Even today, some Iranian hardliners go so far as to claim the entire country of Bahrain as Iranian soil.


Gulf of Guinea

Whos fighting: Angola, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and So Tom and Prncipe, whose maritime borders remain largely unsettled.

Whats it worth? West Africa could be the new Middle East. Today, about 4.7 million barrels of oil per day come from the region; overall, the Gulf of Guinea could be home to over 24 billion barrels of crude oil. Oil fields discovered in the 1990s have turned impoverished Equatorial Guinea into an energy powerhouse, and some analysts speculate that the nearby island nation of So Tom and Prncipe is also sitting on huge reserves.

Whos done what: So far, the nations surrounding the Gulf of Guinea are resolving their disputes peacefully. Joint development zones (JDZ) have allowed several neighboring countries to share the areas mineral wealth. Equatorial Guinea is still at loggerheads with Gabon, which in 1972 occupied three small islands now thought to be near large undiscovered oil and gas fields, but in the past few years Nigeria has settled border disputes with Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and So Tom and Prncipe. In 2006, leaders from around the Gulf of Guinea set up a regional forum to arbitrate oil-related disputes. The future could be far less stable, though, as ongoing violence in Nigeria and several recent coup attempts in So Tom and Equatorial Guinea attest. Moreover, grossly corrupt West African governments could face a backlash from their publics, who have yet to see the Gulf of Guineas growing oil wealth improve their lives.

Click here to see our archive of FP Lists.

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.