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Bargaining over Maritime Boundaries in Times of Legal Change

Applicant Yüksel Umut
Number 181402
Funding scheme Doc.Mobility
Research institution Department of Political Science Stanford University
Institution of higher education Institution abroad - IACH
Main discipline Political science
Start/End 01.09.2018 - 31.08.2019
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Keywords (6)

political geography; maritime boundaries; natural resources; data; bargaining; international law

Lay Summary (French)

Mon projet examine l’établissement des frontières maritimes entre Etats voisins après la seconde guerre mondiale. Il utilise une nouvelle base de données ainsi que des études de cas pour analyser les moteurs du conflit et de la coopération entre les Etats qui ont à déterminer une frontière maritime entre eux. Il étudie plus particulièrement l’influence du droit international sur les revendications maritimes, les conflits concernant la délimitation des espaces maritimes, ainsi que la démarcation éventuelle de ces espaces.
Lay summary

Le but principal de ce projet et d’examiner comment Etats voisins ont établi leurs frontières maritimes après la seconde guerre mondiale et donner un sens à la diversité des trajectoires en ce qui concerne la détermination de ces frontières. Il vise également à mettre en exergue la manière dont le droit international, qui a évolué fortement au cours de la période d’étude, influence systématiquement l’action des Etats qui ont à délimiter une frontière maritime commune. Ce faisant, mon but est en outre de tester les autres explications souvent proposées pour comprendre la politique des Etats riverains quand ils revendiquent et négocient leurs frontières. Ces explications tournent autour des intérêts économiques, particulièrement l’intérêt d’exercer des droits exclusifs sur les ressources naturelles.

Contexte scientifique et social du projet de recherce

Ma recherche s’inscrit dans l’étude du conflit et de la coopération et permet de mieux comprendre les facteurs qui font que certaines frontières maritimes sont gérées d’une manière pacifique alors que d’autres sont fortement contestées. Elle contribue également à examiner l’impact des règles de droit dans un contexte international de plus en plus légalisé.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 25.06.2018

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Communication with the public

Communication Title Media Place Year
New media (web, blogs, podcasts, news feeds etc.) Getting Freedom of Navigation Operations Right in the South China Sea The National Interest International 2019


My research examines the drivers of conflict and cooperation between neighboring states as they draw their maritime boundaries. It is set against the background of two interrelated processes. First, there has been a remarkable increase in the extent of state claims to maritime areas in the aftermath of World War II. Second, the law of the sea evolved considerably to keep pace with these claims, with new rules conceding new rights to coastal states over broad areas. While these processes were unfolding, several states managed to delimit their maritime zones without much difficulty, others chose to leave their potentially overlapping maritime areas undelimited, and a number of states entered into maritime boundary disputes, making and insisting on claims over the same zones. It is the main objective of my dissertation research to begin making sense of this variation by offering a compelling theory that explains (1) when and how states delimit their maritime boundaries, and (2) when and why they enter into maritime boundary disputes.The theory I offer treats boundaries as institutions that yield joint gains to neighboring states that manage to settle them. It rests on a set of assumptions inspired by the rationalist bargaining literature-that states are better off with clearly defined boundaries than with boundary disputes which can potentially lead to costly military conflict; that each state is interested in claiming as great an area as possible; and finally, that each state desires to have its claims recognized as legitimate by its neighbors and other states. I argue that this latter desire for recognition is what makes states resort to international law to justify their claims, which is why it is crucial to consider what international legal rules have to say about the acceptable extent of state jurisdiction in the sea and the appropriate ways to delineate potentially overlapping boundaries. This body of law was subject to intense debates during the second half of the 20th century, when legal scholars and practitioners widely disagreed over the content of its rules. These disagreements reflected and contributed to what I call legal uncertainty, which is my main explanatory variable.I expect that, all other things being equal, legal uncertainty will induce states to make maximalist claims that will often clash. In return, when law is certain, I expect states to be able to arrive at quick settlements. I test these conjectures using mixed methods and an original dataset. I begin with an event history analysis that examines whether states enter into disputes more quickly in times of high legal uncertainty relative to periods in which there were fewer disagreements over the law. I also test whether periods with low legal certainty are associated with a higher incidence of maritime boundary agreements. I control for several other variables, including resources in the vicinity of maritime areas to be delimited, the existence of related territorial disputes, and the shortest distance between the respective coasts of the two states. The preliminary results of my event history analysis suggest that legal uncertainty leads states into disputes, but legal certainty is not enough to induce states to settle their boundaries. Moreover, resources also seem to engender disputes, but they fare no better than legal certainty in explaining agreement over maritime boundaries. If these results hold, they constitute strong evidence for the suggested link between legal uncertainty and resource activity on one hand, and a higher incidence of boundary disputes on the other. They also call for further scholarly attention into identifying other factors that may better account for why so many states leave their boundaries unsettled. The findings of this event history analysis are contextualized through a sequence analysis that serves to identify common boundary management trajectories over time. My proposed causal mechanisms are further probed in three case studies that help me verify whether legal uncertainty operates in the way my theory suggests.My work advances scholarship on multiple fronts. Methodologically, it provides an original dataset that allows for the systematic examination of the drivers of maritime boundary activity. It also lays solid foundations for further explorations into the causes and consequences of maritime boundary disputes and agreement. Substantively, it demonstrates that law matters in boundary-making, an area of state interaction that has so far been thought to belong in the realm of high politics, governed by primary security and economic interests. Interestingly, in the maritime domain, law appears to have had adverse effects when new rules and interpretations created long-lasting disagreements among legal scholars and practitioners that states variously used to justify conflicting claims. This understudied but plausible effect of legalization promises to open avenues for scholars of international relations and law to work together with a view to identifying the conditions under which more law leads to conflict rather than cooperation as is usually intended.