All around the globe, hundreds of land (as well as maritime) boundaries are in dispute. While many such disputes remain wars of words, any one of them suddenly can flare into conflict.
Modern global-positioning systems can calculate to the inch the distance of a golf ball from a flagstick. Cameras in spy satellites can read a car's license plate from outer space. But on Machias Seal Island, just off the coast of Maine in the Bay of Fundy, the most sophisticated technology in the world determines whether the lighthouse shines on Canada or the United States.
That's because both countries claim the uninhabited 15-acre puffin rookery, one of more than 50 land borders around the globe in dispute. With even more maritime boundaries in dispute, the ancient question of who owns what remains a potent source of conflict, despite globalization.
"When you study international politics, you quickly see that territorial disputes remain by far the most important generator of conflict," says Paul K. Huth, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and one of the nation's leading scholars on international territory disputes. "For all the talk about the decline of the nationstate and the end of sovereignty, if you understand which borders are in dispute, you understand where the potential hot spots are."
The Cold War froze several major disputes, adds Clive Schofield, deputy director of the International Boundaries Research Unit, or IBRU, a London-based umbrella group for scholars. The collapse of the Soviet bloc not only revitalized long-dormant border spats, but it also created a host of potential new arguments as some 20 independent nations emerged. "We all got used to seeing the global map as relatively static, and now we're finding that that's not the case," says Schofield.
Maritime disputes are even more contentious. Despite the advances of modern cartography, about 265 of the world's 425 maritime boundaries -- 62 percent -- have not even been officially sanctioned, with fishing stocks, oil and mineral rights and strategic shipping lines yet to be apportioned.
The resulting ambiguity can be dangerous -- witness the outbreak of hostilities between North and South Korea last summer over the "Northern Limit Line." Pyongyang never formally recognized the U.N.-designated buffer zone.
But cartographers say the single most contested piece of real estate on earth almost certainly is a group of barren rocks in the South China Sea known as the Spratly Islands, parts of which are claimed by China, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Control of the Spratlys gives the owner first claim to the fishing and mineral resources of the surrounding ocean, as well as a front seat on a critical leg of one of the world's busiest shipping lines. Daniel J. Dzurek, who has studied the dispute intensively for the IBRU, predicts the wrangle will persist for decades, largely because none of the claimants enjoys a clear title to the islands, based on international law or historic precedent.
Islands, and their unfortunate propensity to appear or disappear without regard for geostrategic imperatives, present particular problems for territorial-dispute theorists. When a rock, reef or shoal graduates into a formal island often depends on tricky calculations of squatters' rights, the location of islands that can disappear underwater for months and the "optimal tidal level choices for insular definition." In some instances, writes IBRU scholar Clive Symmons, "the way an insular formation is defined can affect jurisdiction over literally thousands of square miles of ocean space."
Most of Europe's borders have been settled, but islands are at the heart of two protracted disputes. Spain and Britain remain at loggerheads over Gibraltar, dating back to Britain's seizure of the strategic spot in 1704. Greece and Turkey, in addition to their dispute over Cyprus, continue to contest several small islands in the Aegean Sea that have been a source of continuing tension between the two NATO allies. …