Sovereign territory is key for power and for activities. This principle will most probably remain more or less so in the foreseeable future. Thus, what is the territory over which each state is sovereign? What is the size of each of these territories? And where are these territories located? How does the geographical international world look like?

We think we, of course, know the answers to these questions. Certainly, for example, the largest states must be Russia, the U.S., Canada and China. Certainly, European states are strong only in geographical Europe. But what if these answers were wrong? What if the real international and global world within which we live and will live looked quite differently from the representations to which we are most often used?

Using maps, this article focuses on a representation of the world that is coherent with reality. It insists on the importance to consider the seas and sovereignty over maritime territories globally rather than to look solely at outdated representations centred on landmass. It highlights geo-strategic consequences of this “revised” territorial representation of the world and underlines a few recommendations.

Classical representation of the world

Representation of the world, maps and strategy

Representations of the world embodied as maps define how we think, plan ahead, act.

Representations influence how we think strategically. If we want to design and implement successful strategies, then we need to make sure our mental representations are close enough to reality.

Our conceptions of the geographical space within which we live will constrain and enable what we deem as possible, our vision and objectives, how we design and carry out strategies to realise our objectives, planning and implementation of policies.

They are keys in terms of envisioning global power interplay, which country we think has most chances to win or lose, to be a superpower or not, to be part significantly of the international order or not. They are keys in terms of defense and security, from classical defence and war to planning ahead for threats stemming from climate change, biodiversity loss and more generally ecosystems’ changes. The are key in economic terms. They are key in terms of deciding where to locate factories and offices. They are key in terms of logistics.

Changing our representation of space may change what we do and how we conceptualise ourselves, as well as our relationship to others.

For example, modern geography and especially mapping has been critical in the development of nation-ness and the idea of a nation. It has been no less critical in allowing for the imposition of the principles of the modern nation-state worldwide – i.e. sovereignty, territoriality and independence (see with a related bibliography Hélène Lavoix, “The Power of Maps“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 2012).

A classical focus on landmass

One of the most ancient maps of the world, a Mappa Mundi, is the Tabula Peutingeriana, possibly a medieval copy of a Roman map (ca. 250) created around 1250 (Ulrich Harsch Bibliotheca Augustana). It looks as illustrated in the images below:

Tabula Peutingeriana, 1-4th century CE. Facsimile edition by Konrad Miller, 1887/1888, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – Click on image to access on ZoomViewer.

The focus is on major landmass displaying road networks, cities, some geographical features such as rivers and mountains, with nonetheless known seas and islands, as shown here with Corsica and Sardinia (first image). The political centredness of Rome is also highlighted (second image).

Currently, the 21st century Mappa Mundi to which we are used looks as below:

Political Map of the World from the Central Intelligence Agency‘s World Factbook 2015, Public Domain.

This is a typical political map of the world. The source of the map, the CIA World Factbook, tells us that it is indeed the most common and widespread perception of the world in terms international security, international relations, and geopolitics, as well as economic activity.

With this type of maps, we focus on known land-mass, with small and tiny islands powered over oceans. We also look at distance between sovereign, independent and territorial states. We are interested in borders and especially contested boundaries.

In case of disputes on boundaries, then we focus on more precise and detailed maps, such as the one below for the potential for conflict in the East and South China Sea.

Chinese Territorial Claims and Disputes, the U.S. view – 2020 China Military Power Report to Congress – Department of Defense

Similar maps are drawn according to domains and interests, from energy to mining, through military commands and armies.

Whatever the outlook, the framework for the representation is landmass first, accessorily, unfortunately or even unimportantly in the middle of oceans, handled through ports and transportation lanes.

Seeing the Seas and under the Seas

Updating maps

Now, this focus on main continental landmasses gives us a wrong picture of reality. Two fundamental elements are lacking: exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and continental shelf, which led to claims for extended continental shelf (ECS).

Maybe the easiest way to understand what the EEZ and the continental shelf represent in geopolitical terms is first to imagine the earth without the oceans. Emerged lands (the current landmasses) would then appear as the top of more or less large mountains and plateaux. What we perceive usually as a state’s territory would be located starting from the top of these mountains or plateaux to the coast line (or land boundary as agreed with neighbours). Another slice of territory would be located around the country and spread over 12 nautical miles (the territorial sea). Then another much larger territory would be located within the next “boundary” line, at 200 nautical miles (the EEZ) from the coastline. Finally, a last slice of territory would spread, if it exists, over 360 nautical miles of the continental shelf to which the mountain or plateau belongs, starting from the coast line, or if the continental shelf is smaller than 350 nautical miles, then its end.*

Jean-Benoît Bouron provides a very clear graphic showing these different zones in « Mesurer les Zones Économiques Exclusives », Géoconfluences, mars 2017

All the ground within the last ECS revisited boundary is under the sovereign jurisdiction of the state, more or less as for usual emerged landmass*, which includes all exploitation rights.

Then you can fill in again the depth with the water of the seas and oceans. All the water that is within the 200 nautical miles is under the sovereign juridiction of the state.

For the European Union, for example, the right map with the EEZs looks like the image below (access through the European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) portal).

EMODnet Map of the EU countries plus the UK and their EEZ – 13 November 2020 – Click on image to access interactive map

Yet, even this much better map is not completely correct. We must add to it the extended continental shelf (ECS) claims each country had to submit by 13 May 2009 (for more details, Helene Lavoix, “The Deep-Sea Resources Brief“, updated 5 January 2018). We can see what these claims cover on the picture below.

Map – One Stop Datashop (OSDS) – Continental Shelf Programme – 13 Sept. 2021 – Click on image to access interactive map.

If you click on an area, on the interactive mapping website by GRID Arendal, then you will see which country laid claim to this area, as well as the status of the claim.

Now, if we combine all maps, we obtain a representation of the world that is very different indeed from what we are used to (note that Antarctica territories are still missing from these maps**).

Which international actors are truly global powers?

The only truly geographically global power is the European Union, as long as it remains united. The loss of Great Britain was a serious blow in geopolitical terms, with the loss of South Atlantic supremacy. Comparatively, the U.S. is a Pacific power. Furthermore, the EU’s total EEZs represent 20,07 million km2, while the next power, the U.S., only totals 12,17 million km2 (Jean-Benoît Bouron, “Mesurer les Zones Économiques Exclusives“, Géoconfluences, 23 Mars 2017).

First image: EMODnet Map of the EU countries plus the UK and their EEZ – 13 November 2020.
Second image: NOAA’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the United States and affiliated islands (dark blue). 

China Exclusive Economic Zones and disputes by ASDFGHJCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

China remains within its traditional boundaries, to which the disputed South and East China Sea zones must be added. The absence of maritime and continental shelf possessions for China contributes strongly to explain its extremely active multinational and international vision as well as its related efforts with the International Seabed Authority (ISA), regarding the Arctic and Antarctica (see Helene Lavoix, “The Ultimate Key Technologies of the Future (3) – Extreme Environments“, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 2021; Jean-Michel Valantin, “Antarctic China (2) – China’s Planetary Game” and “Antarctic China (1): Strategies for a Very Cold Place“, 31 May & 28 June 2021, as well as Jean Michel Valantin articles on the Arctic, The Red Team Analysis Society). If China wants to be a global power with a corresponding geographical basis, it has no other choice. China’s space strategy may also be seen within this framework as, by completely displacing the “theatre of operations”, and making it planetary and not only earthly, then China could make partly obsolete its worldwide lack of presence on the globe.

Changing a component of power: a different ranking relative to territory

With the new global map revisited to add the EEZs and ECSs, the real size and potential power of states changes.

Global territory per international actor (in millions of km2) – ranked per EEZs and ECS and ranked per total territory – Sources: mainly Bouron, “Mesurer les Zones Économiques Exclusives“, Ibid; USGS and NOAA; Portail national des limites maritimes; Wikipedia.  

Russia is the largest international actor, closely followed the EU. The U.S. arrives next. China is far beyond. India is even further away. Australia then Canada, however, arrive right after the U.S. Yet, Canada EEZs is exclusively located around its landmass, nonetheless making it an Arctic power. Australia has, thanks to the sea and its EEZs, a substantial presence in the Indian Ocean.

In terms of states, despite small initial landmasses, France becomes the 7th largest country in the world – on a par with China – while New Zealand and the UK respectively become the 9th and 10th largest countries. Germany ranks far below and was added only for the sake of comparison.

France, indeed, has the second largest maritime territory after the U.S. and this territory is spread principally in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The U.S. is absent from the Indian Ocean. Even though it is not visible on the maps, the U.S. is an Arctic power but not an Antarctic one, while France is an Antarctic power but not and Arctic one. The UK with also a global presence is especially strong in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The U.S. EEZs territory (left) and France 2014 EEZs and ECS territory (right)
Left: NOAA’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the United States and affiliated islands (dark blue). Right: SHOM map 2014 – used on the “Tableau des superficies” webpage, Limites Maritimes 

Taking stock of the maritime dimension of territory and power

Hence, it would be logical, strategically, that France, the UK and the EU conceptualise their power in terms of territory and notably maritime territory. This may come easily to the UK considering its history, but may be much harder for the EU and France.

On the contrary, China, and in a lesser way Russia, are fundamentally land-based powers, which, of course, is far from stopping them to develop maritime power (Valantin, Arctic articles, Ibid.). Yet, in the case of China, it has to do so without “points d’appuis”, hence the critical importance of the maritime part of the Chinese Belt and Road, that supplements China’s lack of substantial maritime territory (Valantin, “Militarizing the Maritime New Silk Road“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 3 April 2017).

The importance of this maritime territory seems to start being considered at the EU level, as, for example, the “EU extend[ed] trade defence rules to continental shelf and exclusive economic zones of Member States” on 3rd July 2019. Yet trade is only a part of the instruments of power. Further detailed research and assessment would be needed here.

A difficult adaptation: the complex case of France?

If we look, as another example, at the official 2019 French Army document, France and Security in the Indo-Pacific, it appears quite clearly that old representations are hard-lived. It seems to be difficult to fully start thinking in terms of global territoriality, as shown in the first map of the gallery below.

This does not mean that all French actors have an outdated vision, as shown for example, by the Ifremer, the report of the French Economic Social and Environmental Council (CESE) mentioned below, or the more recent portail national des limites maritimes, using only the maps they provide as weak signals (second, third and fourth map in the gallery below).

First image: French Army, France and Security in the Indo-Pacific, 2019 p.3 – Second Image: Ifremer
Third image: SHOM interactive map, access from portail national des limites maritimes – Fourth Image:  Gérard Grignon, “Extension of the Continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles:an asset for France“, Economic Social and Environmental Council, 2013, p.74

Yet, be it for lack of understanding, vision or something else, for unknown reasons, in 2009, France withdrew the filing of the preliminary information regarding the ECS of Clipperton, thus abandoning or postponing the assertion of sovereign rights. This was done under President Sarkozy, of the Republican Party (right, LR). This abandon was denounced, for example, by the special report of the French Economic Social and Environmental Council (CESE), which is only consultative (Gérard Grignon, “Extension of the Continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles:an asset for France“, 2013, pp. 25 & 33, 125-129), as:

“an unacceptable abandoning of the sovereignty of France over its legitimate pretentions.”

Grignon, “Extension of the Continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles:an asset for France“, p.33

Obviously, nothing has been done to remedy this incredible action and submit the claim as recommended, as the official website of the national maritime limits does not list any ECS for Clipperton (portail national des limites maritimes, “tableau des superficies”, access 15 sept 2021), despite French rights, the existence of resources such as hydrothermal sulfur (Grignon, ibid. p.141 using Ifremer, note N°3 Ocean Mineral Resources, September 21, 2012), and possibly polymetallic nodules.

In general, considering the overall French territory, it looks like the French ECS are particularly small. Indeed, for example, apart from Clipperton, other territories were not followed up and no preliminary information was filed for them during the Sarkozy and then Holland Presidency (Grignon, Ibid., p.61, 125-133). As a whole, it would seem that 725.297 km2 of ECS have been recognised (“tableau des superficies”), when the CESE calculates that 2.510.544 km2 could be claimed (Grignon, pp. 134-135). 2.5 million km2 correspond to 3,7 times the French emerged territory.

The diversity of visions – and actions – of the various French actors should not be a surprise and has long presided over the destiny of the country, notably when exploration and overseas territory are concerned (from Jacques Cartier and the Nouvelle France, to the “Loss of India” – actually trade posts – under Louis XV, through settlements in the French American territories, support of the Americans in the War of Independence, the necessity to go against Napoleon III for a global vision, or the refusal to rely on and completely consider Protectorates and Colonies during World War II, despite demands by the people of these territories – e.g. among others, Raoul Girardet, L’Idée Coloniale en France, (Paris, Hachette/Pluriel, [1972], 1978); Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, « La colonisation française 1931-1939;» in Histoire de La France Coloniale : III. Le Déclin, ed. Vol.3 (Paris: Armand Colin, Agora, 1991); Helene Lavoix, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘genocide’ : the construction of nation-ness, authority, and opposition – the case of Cambodia (1861-1979) – PhD Thesis – School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2005).

Yet, France is de facto the first power in the Indian Ocean. It is also a very strong power in the Pacific possibly on a par with the United States (for the Southern part).

Interestingly, if we think about the old 19th century idea of François Guizot, the policy of “points d’appuis” across the globe allowing for force’s projection (and initially coal and other supplies for steamboats in the then competition with the UK, see Lavoix, Nationalism and Genocide, Ibid.), then the French Caribbean Islands and Clipperton are important locations to reach French areas in the Pacific.

Improbable neighbours

Another consequence of looking globally at the territory of international actors is to become fully aware of the existence of “improbable” neighbours. For example, Australia and France are neighbours, around the Kerguelen islands and New Caledonia. Australia and Norway similarly are neighbours (North of Antarctica). These relationships exist also considering neighbourhood on Antarctica**.

This entails possibly thinking differently about alliances or to the least strong cooperation.

Why does that matter and recommendations

Among the crucial factors that will shape our future, we find climate change and biodiversity loss, or more largely ecosystems’ changes, and ressources (including energy) rarefaction, all leading us to increasingly use new, more extreme, territories.

One such extreme territory is the deep-sea, which involves knowing it, protecting it yet using it. As a result, being able to exploit in a truly sustainable way the abyss, to then transport the obtained ressources where they are needed, to police the related areas and secure them will be of primary importance.

Being sovereign over such territories, which are de facto maritime, will be a factor of wealth and survival. Being able to use these territories strategically is no less important, as shown by the Chinese efforts and successes in this field (e.g. Lavoix, “The Ultimate Key Technologies…”, Ibid.).

The links between the global maritime domain and space should be neither forgotten nor underestimated as space is key for navigation and communications for example.

Halieutic resources and their preservation, of course, should not be forgotten.

Groups of interested players, be they public, private or mix, should move forward to invest and develop sustainable capabilities and management of flows in the EEZs and ECS, more particularly in the deep-sea. They should include start-ups and make sure innovation and multi-disciplinary research is fully included. They may have to apply lobbying pressure on states. This strategy could be particularly useful when or if official rulers and administrations happily practice neglect to the point of default.

Companies should rethink their strategies to consider how the world truly looks like and how related alliances and tensions may evolve and impact their activity.

States, diplomats and armies should make sure they have and will have the means to ensure the security of the territory under their sovereignty, especially considering the increasingly tense context and the rising challenges of the future.


* We are here adopting a geopolitical approach, not an international law dispute vision. Our purpose is not discuss the differences between sovereignty and boundaries related to territorial sea, EEZs, preeminence of the law of the sea, etc, nor the relationships between power, force, international relations, international law, international system, etc.

**”As the Washington Treaty of 1 December 1959 froze all claims to the Antarctic continent, possessor states, such as France, cannot exercise sovereignty or jurisdiction over the waters beyond the Antarctic territory they claim. Requests to extend the continental shelf are also suspended. As a result, the maritime spaces relating to Adelie Land are not included in the maritime spaces currently in force for France.” (Limites maritimes, Tableau des superficies, 2021).

Featured image: Photo by Dorothe form PxHere – Public Domain

Published by Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the President/CEO of The Red Team Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for international relations, national and international security issues. Her current focus is on the war in Ukraine, international order and the rise of China, the overstepping of planetary boundaries and international relations, the methodology of SF&W, radicalisation as well as new tech and security.

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