Most coastal states had to define their continental shelves — areas of shallower water offshore — to the panel, which aims to set limits for national rights to everything from oil and gas to life on the ocean floor.
“This is the sweep after which the maritime limits should be fixed… the final big adaptation of the world map,” said Harald Brekke, vice-chair of the commission. Forty-eight nations have made full claims and dozens more have made preliminary submissions; some are overlapping. Russia has made the most spectacular claim, using a mini-submarine in 2007 to plant a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole. Denmark has said it also will claim the area.
Other submissions highlighting territorial disputes include those of China and neighbours over the South China Sea. “China possesses indisputable sovereignty … over the South China Sea islands and their near areas,” foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said of conflicts with countries including Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. (The commission cannot decide ownership of the seabed around disputed islands, according to Brekke.)
Under existing law, nations can exploit the seabed if their continental shelves extend beyond territorial seas stretching 200 nautical miles from the coast. But the exact limits have not been defined on the map — until now. Distant offshore seabed had long been considered of little commercial interest, but that view has changed. Global warming — which is melting the Arctic ice — and better drilling technology, for example, are bringing new interest in such regions.
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