In light of India’s disputes with Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the decision to not nominate a member for the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf may have significant strategic consequences.
As a major coastal state with big stakes in global ocean governance, India’s decision to not nominate a candidate for the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) runs counter to its strategic interests.
India, like other countries, has an interest in determining the limits of its continental shelf in such a way that it maximises the area of the seabed near its coastline that it alone will be allowed to exploit for commercial purposes.
The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) creates a regime of governance for maritime zones that fall under national jurisdiction – namely the territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. A country’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from its coastal baseline and its EEZ up to 200 nm. A coastal state also has exclusive economic rights to the first 200 nm of its continental shelf – the sloping seabed that forms part of the natural geological prolongation of its land mass. States can lay claim to an extended continental shelf by making a geological submission to the CLCS, up to a maximum distance of 350 nm from its coastal baseline.
India played a constructive role in deliberations leading to UNCLOS’s adoption in 1982 and has been a party to to convention since 1995. The country shares maritime boundaries with Pakistan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Many of these boundaries are such that there are overlapping claims, especially when it comes to the extended continental shelf. Since a coastal state has exclusive jurisdiction to commercially exploit the continental shelf for metallic ore, non-metallic ore and hydrocarbon extractions, opportune and accurate strategic measures will not only safeguard India’s maritime boundaries, but can also reap benefits beyond expectation. India has invested heavily in exploring non-living resources in deep international waters for polymetallic nodules, cobalt crust and hydrothermal sulphides. More and more hydrocarbon resources are being discovered worldwide in deeper parts of the continental shelf.
Three maritime institutions
ITLOS is tasked with the peaceful settlement of contentious issues submitted to it by member states while the CLCS is mandated to scientifically determine the maritime boundaries of states relating to the continental shelf. The ISA is designated to oversee exploitation of resources in the deep sea area.
UNCLOS provides four options for member states to peacefully settle disputes – through ITLOS, the International Court of Justice, an arbitral tribunal constituted in accordance with Annex VII of UNCLOS, and a special arbitral tribunal constituted in accordance with Annex VIII of UNCLOS for one or more of the categories of disputes specified such as fisheries, marine pollution etc. A state party may choose one or more of the options stated above.
India has always preferred to settle its disputes via the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). It is the oldest and most prestigious dispute resolution body, established by the Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, concluded at the Hague in 1899 during the first Hague Peace Conference. The PCA was the first permanent inter-governmental body created to resolve disputes peacefully through arbitration or other means.
In case of UNCLOS disputes, India’s preference – as is evidenced in the Bay of Bengal Maritime Boundary arbitration between Bangladesh and India, and the Enrica Lexie incident arbitration between Italy and India – seems to be settlement via arbitration under Annex VII by the PCA.
UNCLOS also has provisions for determining the limits of the continental shelf and the CLCS was set up exclusively for this purpose. Being surrounded on three sides by oceans with a total coastal length of around 7,500 kilometres, India’s stake in the delineation of its continental shelf is very high.