Vietnam’s Struggles in the South China Sea: Challenges and Opportunities

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Viet Hung Nguyen Cao

The new U.S. South China Sea policy, recently announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, once again put the disputes between China and other claimants in this Westernmost area of the Pacific back into the limelight. The core component of the disputes is China’s nine-dash line claim which overlaps with the existing maritime zones of several countries in the region. In recent years, China has deployed grey zone tactics, such as utilizing micro-aggressive measures such as maritime militia and the deployment of survey vessels to enforce its claims.

Vietnam, as one of the major claimants involved, has been a frequent target of these tactics. With only weak, symbolic reactions to China’s aggression, Vietnam is without a proactive or effective strategy to fight back. There are policies that Vietnam should adopt, but at the heart of these policies is the need for more international cooperation in resolving the issues linked to China’s strategy.

China’s Tactics

A primary component of China’s tactics in the South China Sea is the use of maritime militia and law enforcement vessels to intimidate fishermen and drive them away from traditional fishing areas. Annually, China announces a fishing ban, claiming that its purpose is to preserve the fish stock in the South China Sea. Empowered with this ban, Chinese vessels frequently harass, attack, and sink Vietnamese vessels. The most recent case occurred in June 2020, when a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) cutter and motorboat surrounded a Vietnamese fishing boat and rammed the vessel. The Vietnamese fishermen were then captured, beaten, and were forced to sign documents stating that they had violated the fishing ban. The CCG also took away the fishing equipment and caused damage to the ship.

China’s tactics in the SCS also feature the use of research vessels and their escort fleets to harass gas and oil development activities of other claimants, forcing them to reconsider or abandon their projects. China often deploys several survey vessels, as well as an escort fleet of law enforcement vessels and maritime militia, to planned oil and gas blocks of claimant states in order to deny other claimants access to these waters. Notable cases include the Vanguard Bank standoff from July to October 2019, as well as the recent appearance of Chinese research vessel Haiyang Dizhi 4 inside Vietnam’s EEZ near bloc 6.01, a gas bloc where Vietnam was planning to jointly explore with Russian gas conglomerate Rosneft.

These tactics clearly show China’s ambitions to establish a permanent maritime presence in the region. China aims to use these tactics as a means to enforce its excessive maritime claims and force Southeast Asian countries to accept China as the new hegemon.

Vietnam’s Efforts

Faced with these challenges, what has the Vietnamese government done to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights? The answer is, on paper, a lot, but their actions thus far have been lackluster and ineffective. Vietnam’s primary response to Chinese aggression has been through diplomatic protests and public statements.

Vietnam’s diplomatic protests against these actions are often conducted at the bilateral level, such as through meetings or teleconferences between foreign affairs officials, both at government and party levels. Most recently, after the aforementioned incident in June, Vietnam’s Foreign Minister held a teleconference with his Chinese counterpart to discuss solutions. Similar lines of communication have been effective in preventing conflict escalation, thus mitigating a potential diplomatic crisis or an all-out war. Yet, these protests have been unable to reverse Chinese actions.

In their public statements, Vietnam demonstrates a firmness regarding the sovereignty of Vietnam, as well as a willingness to cooperate to resolve the dispute according to international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, the repetition of these phrases through the years have turned these statements into meaningless pronouncements, and the messages in these statements have even become memes, used in a mocking attitude by Vietnamese netizens. In recent years, these statements have begun to include mentions of litigation as a possible means of resolving the disputes, suggesting Vietnam’s willingness to bring China to court. However, a threat is only credible when those making the threat are willing to walk the talk. Without concrete action to signal serious intent, the threat of bringing China to court will become meaningless over time.

Vietnam has suffered the consequences for its weak and symbolic reactions to China’s aggression in both the political and economic fields. The most notable setback to Vietnam was how China increased the frequency of its activities in recent years. After the 2014 Haiyang Shiyou 981 standoff, China had repeatedly deployed research vessels and oil rigs to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Vietnam, and generally with longer duration and increased frequency of missions. In 2014, China only deployed its vessels into Vietnam’s EEZ once, and only for about two months. Then last year, it deployed the vessel four or five times, with the total duration of these missions being around six months, from late March until early October. In the whole of 2019, there were three cases of Chinese vessels attacking and/or harassing Vietnamese fishing vessels. This year, three cases have occurred in just the first six months.

With China showing little tolerance for vessels violating their arbitrary fishing ban, many Vietnamese fishermen are being forced to abandon their traditional fishing grounds and sail further south. This is a root cause for increasing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities in the region. These fishing vessels intrude into the waters of Indonesia and Malaysia and conduct illegal fishing. This has created a wedge issue in the relations between Vietnam and both countries as more and more Vietnamese fishing vessels are being detained and in some cases, destroyed. Most recently, a clash between Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency vessels and Vietnamese fishing vessels operating illegally inside Malaysian waters resulted in the death of a Vietnamese fisherman.

Proven and probable reserves of gas and oil in the South China Sea (Graphic via CSIS Asia MaritimeTransparency Initiative)

Aside from an international level, there is a possibility that Vietnam is also facing political consequences at home. With the increased harassment of China, Vietnam has had to cancel several oil and gas development projects, with the compensation for foreign companies totaling close to $1 billion. Most recently, Vietnam delayed the exploration of block 06-01 until next year, a project previously rumored to be cancelled altogether. Aside from this, there have been reports of grassroots dissatisfaction of Vietnamese fishermen whose vessels were sunk. According to one researcher, they expressed disappointment that their cases were not appropriately handled by the Vietnamese authorities, and their loss was not compensated sufficiently. If this situation continues, the Vietnamese government might face challenges to its legitimacy and lose domestic support.

Policy Recommendations

In order to resolve these issues, Vietnam should consider alternative policies, alongside existing ones, to both manage the situation in the meantime, as well as solving issues in the long run. The first step is to expand its current international cooperation on increasing maritime domain awareness. Potential measures include providing fishing vessels with radio and tracking equipment, with updated Geographical Information System (GIS) signals. Vietnam should also negotiate with countries in the region, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, on protocols in situations where local authorities capture Vietnamese fishing vessels operating in their EEZs, as well as for unexpected encounters at seas. By mitigating possible consequences of IUU fishing, Vietnam can avoid regional tensions and domestic backlashes.

An image taken from a Vietnamese Coast Guard vessel shows a Chinese Coast Guard ship firing a water cannon at a Vietnamese fisheries research ship in disputed waters in the South China Sea. (Photo via Evan McKirdy/CNN)

Secondly, Vietnam should also consider the possibility of initiating joint patrol operations along with the coast guards of other states. Considering how Chinese fishing bans and maritime militia are also affecting Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines as well, these countries should consider coordinating patrol activities in the South China Sea, as well as improving their information sharing systems in order to minimize the impact of China’s actions. The joint patrols will help in driving out Chinese maritime militia operating in the waters, as well as managing IUU fishing.

An alternative policy to consider is to organize Vietnam’s fishing vessels into fleets. In past incidents, the vessels that were sunk by Chinese vessels were operating alone and far from other ships. With the establishment of the fishing fleets, the vessels will be better protected against Chinese aggression, and in the case of an attack, the vessels will be able to help one another, minimizing the damage to the ship and the loss of personnel.

Last but not least, Vietnam should take actions regarding its threat to file a case against China, making the threat more credible. While the recent move of nominating arbitrators to Annex VII of UNCLOS indicated Vietnam’s intention of using this mechanism, it might also be better to look into other options as well, such as The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). In order to signal its intention, Vietnam should raise concerns regarding Chinese nominations for ITLOS judges. As recently pointed out, China’s nominations had been elected uncontested since 1996. Opposition from Vietnam would show serious commitment to upholding international legal values, and demonstrate serious consideration of resolving the disputes through legal means.


China’s strategy in the South China Sea has brought significant challenges to Vietnam, and the government’s weak and symbolic responses have only worsened the situation. In order to manage these issues, Vietnam needs to address these challenges individually, yet they cannot be fully addressed without cooperating with other states. Vietnam alone is not an economically, diplomatically, nor military sufficient contender against China, but through cooperation with others, Vietnam can exert significant influence to change the status quo and turn the tables in its favor.

Viet Hung Nguyen Cao is an MA student at the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University, and a Research Assistant at the South China Sea Data Initiative. His primary research interests are the maritime disputes in East Asia and Japanese politics.

Featured Image: A Vietnamese Coast Guard ship (second right, dark blue) tries to make way amongst several China Coast Guard ships near a Chinese drilling oil rig (right background) being installed in disputed waters in the South China Sea on May 14, 2014. (Photo via Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty)

Sea Control 200 – European Naval Procurement with Dr. Jeremy Stöhs

By Jared Samuelson

Amidst the chaos of Regional Strategies Week here at CIMSEC we welcome an Austrian navalist, Dr. Jeremy Stöhs, to discuss European naval procurement, including his book on the decline of European naval forces, European shipbuilding infrastructure, and trends in systems and platforms.

Download Sea Control 200 – European Naval Procurement with Dr. Jeremy Stöhs


1. “On the Decline of European Naval Forces: A Conversation with Jeremy Stöhs,” by Roger Hilton, CIMSEC, September 6, 2019.
2. The Decline of European Naval Forces: Challenges to Sea Power in an Age of Fiscal Austerity and Political Uncertainty, by Jeremy Stöhs, Naval Institute Press, 2018.

Jared Samuelson is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control Podcast. Contact him at

Between the Giants: The Future of the Taiwanese Navy in an Era of Great Power Competition

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Jonathan Selling 

For years worries about a potential second Cold War between the United States and China have swirled within discussions on the Asia-Pacific. For a while these proclamations seemed overblown, seemingly more the fever dreams of Cold Warriors hoping for a new adversary. But in the last few years it seems these concerns are finally coming true as tensions between the two nations have increased dramatically. While it is still possible that relations between the United States and China could improve and tensions may fall, various regional states are preparing for a new era of great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.

In this new world of enhanced competition between the United States and China, no nation has more reason to be concerned than the island nation of Taiwan. Claimed by China, and largely protected by the United States, Taiwan cannot avoid being drawn into the competition. Because of its unsettled political status, Taiwan could easily become a flashpoint between the two powers. Tensions have risen across the strait recently and it remains to be seen how much more it would take for them to boil over. For this reason, a rise in great power competition will signal a precarious time for Taiwan, where its independence will be threatened more severely than perhaps ever before.

In the naval realm, this has resulted in a shift in how the Republic of China Navy (ROCN) is composed and deployed. A focus on asymmetric warfare has become the mainstay of ROCN defensive plans, with major surface ships becoming much less important for Taiwan’s seaborne defense. Likewise, a new emphasis on integration with the United States and its allies has become more important and has allowed for a new use for Taiwan’s surface fleet.

A Shifting Doctrine

Taiwan’s defense doctrine has had to undergo shifts in recent years. Until recently the ability of China to existentially threaten the island nation was negligible. Taiwan could be confident it could repel a major Chinese attack with the backing of the United States. The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-1996 demonstrated the inability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to deter the United States Navy from sailing through the Strait, and a significant American show of force was enough to dissuade the Chinese.

While the crisis demonstrated Taiwanese safety from the mainland, it sowed the seeds of the current climate. It prompted the PLA to undertake wide-reaching reforms and modernization which allowed the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to become larger and more advanced, which has significantly changed the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait as the PLAN now dwarfs the ROCN. This has driven a shift toward a strategy of asymmetric warfare to harass and chip away at the PLAN in the event of war with the goal of inflicting mounting casualties and ideally preventing an invasion fleet from crossing the strait.

Taiwan’s most recent defense plan, the Overall Defense Concept, lays out the concept of asymmetric warfare. The plan calls for a two-phase system to defeat China. Phase one involves harassing a Chinese invasion fleet and weakening it before it hits the beaches. The second phase calls for the invasion to be annihilated as Chinese soldiers wade ashore on Taiwan. This change calls for assets to be lighter and more survivable than what Taiwan has traditionally relied on.

The adoption of this strategy has led the ROCN to recently purchase systems specifically for this task and to focus exclusively on this mission. This meant acquiring small, cheap, and asymmetric assets that can harass the PLAN as it attempts to cross the strait. The Taiwanese Navy has invested in minelayers that will quickly litter the seas with mines to slow down the invasion fleet. Diesel-powered submarines will prowl the Taiwan Strait, a body of water uniquely suited for submarine warfare, looking for Chinese vessels to pick off. Fast attack boats armed with anti-ship missiles will also harass the incoming fleet and wreck havoc on the landing ships crossing the strait.

However, as Taiwan procures new force structure to pursue these operating concepts, there still remains the question of how its older force structure will figure into the equation.

The Surface Fleet: Holdover or Essential?

Despite seemingly not fitting into its latest doctrine, the Taiwanese Navy maintains a number of large surface ships, and is continuing to construct or purchase more. In the event of war, these ships would likely either be sunk quickly or would be forced to flee Taiwanese waters, perhaps taking shelter at American or allied ports. Plans for the ships to regroup to wreak havoc during a PLA landing are highly optimistic, and even if successful, would still not be an ideal role. If these ships are so ill-suited for high-end warfighting only miles away from the Chinese coast then why spend valuable resources on them?

This shift to asymmetric warfare is well-suited when it comes to preventing an invasion, but offers little for patrolling Taiwan’s territorial waters or exerting power at any significant distance from Taiwan’s shores. For this, Taiwan relies on its surface fleet, made up of four destroyers and 22 frigates. Although the Chinese threat is primarily depicted as a naval invasion, Beijing could take other actions to subjugate or pressure Taiwan. In particular, a naval blockade or more distant naval skirmishes could be options. In this case, the surface fleet with its range would be invaluable. Likewise, in normal times, Taiwan’s surface ships provide security in the island’s territorial waters, a task that small missile boats and minelayers cannot perform well.

The surface fleet also serves to lend a level of prestige to Taiwan, which helps explain the Taiwanese government’s continued buildup of it. While an asymmetrical fleet is more efficient for protecting Taiwan, switching over to an entirely asymmetrical fleet focused on littoral warfare would signify a degradation of Taiwan’s power and prestige via-a-vis mainland China. This would only serve to enhance mainland China’s diminishment of Taiwan, allowing China to more effectively portray the island not as a sovereign nation but as a rebellious province.

The Taiwan Navy’s ‘Friendly Fleet’ is welcomed home at Zoying Naval Base in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, on April 15, 2020. (Photo via South China Morning Post)

Finally, the surface fleet can conduct goodwill tours to bolster Taiwan’s international profile. Taiwan’s dwindling amount of official relations still play an important role in legitimizing the nation against China’s claims of its status. By paying visits to overseas nations the ROCN is able to make diplomatic efforts that can have positive effects on these countries’ relations with Taiwan.

The United States: An Indispensable Ally 

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have pushed traditional allies of the U.S. to spend more on defense so as to shoulder their fair share of the burden, and this focus on burden-sharing has upset some of America’s traditional allies. But unlike Germany or Japan, Taiwan is far more reliant on the United States for its survival. The threat of American intervention is perhaps the only truly credible deterrent that could foreclose the PRC’s military options against Taiwan. As such, Taiwan can at times be portrayed as a burden for the United States, and there is worry that Taiwan’s future could be a bargaining chip in a grand settlement between the two powers.

Since relations between the United States and China began to deteriorate, Taiwan’s importance has increased. It is now being recognized as an especially important bulwark in the First Island Chain that prevents unrestricted access to the Pacific Ocean for the Chinese Navy. But due to its lack of official relations or a guarantee stronger than the ambiguously worded Taiwan Relations Act, the island nation’s security has not meaningfully increased. In fact, due to the increased tensions, Taiwan is at a greater risk of conflict than before.

Taiwan’s surface fleet thus serves the important role of garnering American support. By being able to contribute to missions far from Taiwan’s shore, such as maritime security missions and cooperative exercises, these surface ships can contribute to some forms of burden sharing with the United States and demonstrate Taiwan’s value as an ally.

The surface fleet also provides the only area where the ROCN can integrate with the United States Navy (USN) in any real capacity. The United States has not operated diesel submarines since the 1950s and mine-laying and sweeping are not emphasized in the U.S. Navy. Fast attack craft with long-range anti-ship missiles are not utilized in any way by the U.S. Navy. This lack of interoperability is a constant headache for the ROCN as well as the other branches of the Taiwanese military. This may be changing though, as Taiwan has begun to ramp up work on its domestic arms industry. After almost two decades of trying to purchase new diesel submarines, Taiwan has begun construction of its own. Likewise, the island has made great strides in developing domestic anti-ship missiles, which will be used by both the Army and Navy.

Ultimately, Taiwan’s surface fleet can do more to protect Taiwan by assisting and cooperating with the United States than it does by lying in wait for a Chinese invasion force to materialize. By integrating itself into U.S.-led alliance and partnership structures, Taiwan can come to be seen as more than just a burden for the United States. The ROCN has also increased its connections to U.S. allies, most notably Australia and Japan. Like with the United States, the more that Taiwan can make itself a helpful ally, the more it will be seen as indispensable in the region.


In this new era of great power competition the ROCN is designed to maximize utility with a small budget while facing a much wealthier and larger adversary. The small surface fleet patrols and guards the island’s territorial waters, while the anti-invasion force is designed to ensure that the PLA will not be able to land troops on the beach without paying a heavy toll.

The future of the ROCN is likely one of further bifurcation, with the anti-invasion fleet continuing to dwarf the surface fleet. Pursuant to its hedgehog strategy, the ROCN will concentrate on raising the cost of conflict with China in the years to come in an attempt to prevent Chinese aggression, while the surface fleet will conduct goodwill tours and conduct joint operations with allies to build relationships and raise Taiwan’s image abroad.

Ultimately, it will be the United States that will keep China at bay. The power discrepancy between Taiwan and the mainland has grown too great for Taiwan alone to deter China for much longer. While China likely cannot successfully conduct an invasion of the island just yet, it will not be long until it is capable. The continued freedom of the island lies with its friends and allies. It is only through alliances with the United States and other like-minded Pacific nations that Taiwan can hope to continue to prevent a Chinese invasion.

Some claim that Taiwan’s naval defense strategy doesn’t make sense. While the navy is not singularly designed to repel an invasion, it is still designed with a coherent strategy in mind, one that promises to be more effective at protecting the island than the strategy the navy’s critics insist on. While a purely asymmetric fleet would bring better bang for Taiwan’s buck, this fleet would serve to shrink Taiwan’s international profile and reinforce the idea that Taiwan is wholly dependent on the United States.

Taiwan may come to see this new era of great power competition as a blessing in disguise. Ten years ago, one view saw Taiwan merely as an irritant to better relations with China. This argument was made fairly often, and called for a grand bargain with China that would see the United States relinquish its security commitments to Taiwan in exchange for better relations with China. Today such talk is almost unheard of. With the threat of great power competition rising anew, Taiwan is now seen as an important bulwark in the competition with China, and Taiwan is doing its part to rise to that role. The ROCN is preparing for an era of intense competition and has set out policies to keep Taiwan safe during this turbulent era.

Jonathan Selling is a graduate of Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies with an MA International Affairs. His primary research interests are the rise of great powers and American alliances in the Indo-Pacific. 

Featured Image: Navy sailors walk past a 500-ton corvette named Tuo Chiang at the Tsoying navy base in southern Kaohsiung on March 31, 2015. (Photo: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey’s “Mavi Vatan” Strategy and Rising Insecurity in the Eastern Mediterranean

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Capt. Andrew Norris, J.D., USCG (ret.) and Alexander Norris


For the past several years, Turkey has leveraged its regional economic, political, and military superiority to aggressively assert a claim over contested, potentially oil-rich regions of the Eastern Mediterranean. This hegemonic strategy, domestically referred to as “Mavi Vatan,” or “blue homeland,” has most recently manifested itself in Turkey’s deployment of the seismic vessel Oruç Reis with a naval escort to disputed waters south and west of Cyprus. Despite widespread and growing international criticism of this doctrine and its associated activities, Turkey has so far remained steadfast in its resolve. This was exemplified by Turkish Navy Commander Engin Ağmış’ recent pronouncement, spoken in the presence of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan,* that “[w]e are proud to wave our glorious Turkish banner in all our seas. . . I submit that we are ready to protect every swath of our 462 thousand square kilometer blue homeland with great determination and undertake every possible duty that may come.” The impacts of Turkey’s “blue homeland” doctrine and associated activities to regional security deserve closer scrutiny, as well as the likelihood of Turkey’s current policies allowing it to achieve its strategic “Mavi Vatan” goals.

Mavi Vatan and Associated Maritime Activities

Turkey’s “Mavi Vatan” strategy is conceived as a means of ending Turkey’s near-complete dependence on foreign energy sources and converting Turkey into a net energy exporter. In 2019, Turkey spent $41.7 billion on imported oil – around 5.5 percent of its GDP – while relying on Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan for a large majority of its energy needs. President Erdoğan emphasized the need to decrease Turkish oil dependence during Ankara’s announcement in August of the discovery of a significant oil field in the Black Sea: “As a country that depended on outside gas for years, we look to the future with more security now … There will be no stopping until we become a net exporter in energy.” Also, according to Turkey’s State-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO), “[o]ur aim in [our offshore exploration] activities is to discover hydrocarbons in our blue homeland and to contribute to reducing our country’s dependence on foreign energy.”

Erdoğan’s declaration marks the logical continuity of a policy that has defined Turkey’s relationship with the Eastern Mediterranean for the past five years. Since 2017, Turkey has acquired a fleet of three drillships and two seismic survey ships that place it in the uppermost echelon of oil-exporting states in the world, rivalling some of the largest private companies in the world in exploration and exploitation capabilities. Turkey’s most recent acquisition, a sixth-generation offshore drilling rig purchased from a Norwegian oil company for $37.5 million, reflects Turkey’s investment in, and optimistic outlook for, the prospect of seabed hydrocarbon extraction in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In addition to acquiring the means for accessing seabed hydrocarbons, Turkey has engaged in increasingly provocative exploratory activities in potentially lucrative oil fields of the Eastern Mediterranean. The Fatih and the Yavuz, two of Turkey’s drillships, have been deployed in disputed waters to the east and south of the island of Cyprus over the past several years, drawing widespread condemnation from regional states and the European Union. Most recently, Turkey sent the seismic vessel Oruç Reis with a naval escort to contested waters west and south of Cyprus, which has resulted in international condemnation and France’s deployment of a frigate and several fighter jets to the region in support of Greece and Cyprus. Grandstanding and posturing by both sides resulted in a recent collision between a Greek and Turkish naval vessel, demonstrating the inherent risk of intentional or inadvertent escalation of tensions resulting from Turkey’s activities and the associated responses by rival claimants.

Turkey’s drilling vessel Fatih sails through Bosphorus as she leaves for the Black Sea in Istanbul, Turkey, May 29, 2020. (Photo via Reuters/Umit Bektas)

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has entered into a series of agreements that ostensibly sanction its exploratory activities. In 2011, Turkey entered into an agreement with the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC) that purports to delimit the continental shelf boundary between Cyprus and Turkey. As a follow-on to that agreement, TPAO signed oil services and production share agreements with the TRNC covering one onshore and seven offshore fields in disputed Cypriot waters. In 2019, Turkey signed a maritime boundary delimitation agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord that purports to assign to the two nations maritime zones in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus, which drew criticism from both the European Union and the United States. Since then, Turkey has designated seven license areas in waters covered by the agreement for oil exploration and drilling.

Contemporaneously, Turkey has heightened its military presence in the region through overt demonstrations of its naval and aerial capabilities. Exercise Sea Wolf, held in 2019 to demonstrate the “Turkish Armed Forces’ resolution and capability in protecting the country’s security as well as its rights and interests in the seas,” incorporated over 25,000 personnel and 100 vessels in the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and the Black Sea. Most recently, Turkey announced the commencement of live-fire naval drills in the Mediterranean as a direct response to Greece’s ratification of a maritime accord with Egypt.

Amidst these developments, Turkey maintains a claim to legitimacy in its quest for hydrocarbon resources. “We don’t have our eye on someone else’s territory, sovereignty and interests,” Erdoğan recently announced, “but we will make no concessions on that which is ours … We are determined to do whatever is necessary.”

 Aug 10, 2020 – Turkey’s research vessel, Oruc Reis, is surrounded by Turkish navy vessels as it transits the Mediterranean. (Photo via Turkish Defense Ministry)

Legally Problematic and Provocative “Mavi Vatan”

Turkey has advanced two legal justifications for its exploratory activities in the Eastern Mediterranean: that it is doing so pursuant to license granted to it by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), and that its explorations are occurring in waters in which Turkey has sovereign rights, including exclusive ownership of all hydrocarbon resources and the exclusive rights to exploit any such resources. Both of these arguments are legally problematic.

In 1960, Cyprus, formerly a British colony, attained independence through the Zürich and London Agreements between the United Kingdom, Greece, and Turkey. In 1974, in response to sectarian violence between the majority Greek and the minority Turkish populace, and to thwart the threatened unification of the island with Greece, Turkey invaded Cyprus and initiated an occupation of the northern 40 percent of the island that continues today. In 1983, the Turkish-occupied zone declared itself an independent State, the TRNC. However, only Turkey alone recognizes the TRNC’s claim of statehood. The United Nations does not recognize the TRNC, considering it instead as a “legally invalid” secessionist entity of the Republic of Cyprus (UNSCR 541 (1983); UNSCR 550 (1984)). The latter resolution calls on all States to “respect the sovereignty, independence, [and] territorial integrity …. of the Republic of Cyprus (ROC)” as the sole legitimate government of the island.

As a non-state, the TRNC is not competent to declare maritime zones, negotiate international agreements, or purport to grant concessions or any rights in Cypriot waters. Turkey’s reliance on maritime boundary agreements negotiated with the so-called TRNC, and on “grants” or “concessions” by the “TRNC” in maritime zones it invalidly claims, is done not only in defiance of the United Nations Security Council and the global community, but is rightly viewed by the Republic of Cyprus as an assault on its sovereignty. This view is supported and reflected in a joint statement by the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, France, and the UAE in May 2020 that, among other things, “denounced the ongoing Turkish illegal activities in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone and its territorial waters, as they represent a clear violation of international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is the sixth attempt by Turkey in less than a year to illegally conduct drilling operations in Cyprus’ maritime zones.”

Map of the division of Cyprus (BBC graphic)

Outside “TRNC” waters, Turkey has attempted to justify its exploratory activities by claiming that they are conducted in waters in which Turkey has “ipso facto and ab initio legal and sovereign rights,” which translates into an assertion that the exploration is being conducted on Turkey’s continental shelf. According to Article 77 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a state like Turkey (but unlike the TRNC) possesses “exclusive sovereign right for the purpose of exploring and exploiting” the natural resources of its continental shelf, including the “mineral and other non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil.”1 Though Turkey is not a state party to UNCLOS, Article 77’s provisions reflect customary international law, and thus both empower but also constrain Turkey’s (and other states’) continental shelf entitlements. Absent unusual subsurface conditions, the maximum breadth of a state’s continental shelf is 200 nautical miles (nm) from its baselines, typically the low-water line of its coast.

When, as is the case here, the continental shelf entitlements of opposite (e.g. Cyprus and Egypt) or adjacent (e.g. Greece and Turkey) states overlap, customary international law (as reflected in UNCLOS Articles 74 and 83) requires states to agree on a boundary delimitation based on international law to reach an “equitable” solution. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and Cyprus agreed on a maritime boundary delimitation (which Turkey does not recognize) in 2003. As already discussed, Turkey and Libya agreed on a maritime boundary in 2019 (which Greece and Cyprus have protested), and Greece and Egypt delimited their maritime boundary in August 2020 (which Turkey has protested). It is important to note that according to Article 34 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, these bilateral treaties create neither obligations nor rights for a third state without its consent. In other words, these negotiated boundary (and associated resource) delimitations only purport to create rights and obligations for the states that agreed to them.

Whether done through a negotiated agreement or through resort to a judicial or arbitral tribunal, the process for determining an “equitable” maritime boundary that has crystallized under both UNCLOS and customary international law begins with the drawing of a provisional equidistance line (the line every point of which is equidistant from the nearest points on the respective states’ baselines). This equidistance line, also referred to as a median line, should be adjusted as equity demands to take into account special or relevant circumstances, such as a marked disproportionality between the length of the parties’ relevant coasts and the maritime areas that appertain to them. All of the maritime boundary delimitation agreements referenced above, plus others that have been negotiated in the region (Cyprus-Lebanon and Cyprus-Israel), have accepted equidistance as the underlying legal doctrine for determining “equity.” Equidistance also seems to be the underlying principle in Turkey’s unilateral declaration of a maritime boundary between itself and Egypt, which Cyprus has protested, and in Cyprus’s unilateral declaration of a continental shelf boundary between it and Turkey, depicted below.

May 4, 2019 submission to the U.N. by the Republic of Cyprus on its declared outer limits of its EEZ/continental shelf vis-à-vis Turkey (UN graphic)

As for Greece and Turkey, Greece in 1976 petitioned the International Court of Justice to delimit its respective continental shelves and Turkey’s. Turkey disputed the court’s jurisdiction, and in a 1978 ruling, the court agreed with Turkey and dismissed the case. The two states have not reached a maritime boundary delimitation agreement since.

The depiction below is of existing claims in the Eastern Mediterranean to the south and west of Cyprus based either on agreement or on unilateral declaration, or of the maritime boundaries that would exist through strict application of the equidistance principle in cases where no specific claims have been made. Superimposed on this depiction is the area of exploration of the Oruç Reis. As can be seen, Turkey’s claim to undisputed “ipso facto and ab initio legal and sovereign rights” in the area being explored is not correct as both Cyprus and Greece have legitimate reasons to claim most or all of the waters and their related resources being surveyed by the Oruç Reis. In fact, as discussed below and in this recent post on the blog of the European Journal of International Law , due to the concavity formed by the coasts of the Dodecanese Islands, Turkey, and Cyprus, Turkey’s maritime entitlement in the waters at issue, without an equitable adjustment, could be as small as the two inverted triangles on either side of Kastellorizo Island (see depiction below). Egypt has also protested Turkey’s most recent exploration activities, claiming that they encroach on areas of Egypt’s continental shelf. All three nations justifiably feel that Turkey is violating international law by its exploratory activities in their waters, which are preliminary activities to Turkey’s ultimate design to, in their view, steal their hydrocarbon resources.

Map of overlapping claims in the Eastern Mediterranean (BBC graphic)


Turkey’s exploratory activities in support of Mavi Vatan have occurred in disputed waters – waters in which regional states, often with a long history of antagonistic relations with Turkey, have provisional maritime entitlements superior to those of Turkey. These aggrieved neighbors, and their friends and allies, have strenuously objected through words and deeds to Turkey’s provocative actions. All of this has significantly increased regional insecurity.

The international reaction, both extant and future, presents Turkey with a stark choice and a difficult calculus – is it more likely to get what it wants through continued confrontation and belligerence, or through accommodation? To date, the former course has provoked, among other consequences, the antagonism of powerful regional states like Egypt and Israel; strong condemnations from the EU and the deployment of military hardware to the region from aggrieved EU/NATO nations; the EU’s reduction of its financial aid package to Turkey for 2020 by €145.8 million; U.S. sympathy for the plight of Cyprus in the form of the partial lifting of the 10-year embargo on the sale of military equipment to the island; the warming of the U.S.’s complicated relations with Greece; and Turkey’s exclusion from emerging collaborative enterprises such as the EastMed Gas Forum, comprised of Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine.

How much Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon production or extraction has Turkey engaged in to counterbalance these consequences? None. Nor is it likely to ever get to the production stage in any disputed waters at issue, because the international community is unlikely to permit such a blatant assault on international law, international comity, and the rights and entitlements of weaker states. Finally, as mentioned before, the current escalatory environment brings with it a very real risk of armed conflict, either deliberate or inadvertent, which will benefit no one. For these reasons, continued confrontation and belligerence, though it might play well to a certain domestic audience, does not seem like an attractive or fruitful course.

How about accommodation? All parties with potential entitlements in the disputed waters at issue have expressed a willingness to negotiate, though Turkey’s offer only extends to relevant coastal states “that it recognizes and with which it has diplomatic relations,” which precludes negotiations with the ROC. But Turkey may not have any choice if it wants to depart from the pathway of confrontation and belligerence. None of the concessions purportedly granted to the TPAO by the “TRNC” are likely to ever lead to productive wells and fields, for the reasons discussed above, unless there is an accommodation with Cyprus (specifically, the ROC). To the west of the island, the only way the green line on the east side of the larger inverted triangle representing Turkey’s maritime entitlement in the illustration above can get equitably adjusted to ease the “cutoff effect” of the concave coastlines is through negotiation with Cyprus. Absent such negotiation, Cyprus has no enticement to agree to an adjustment of that line, and the international community will support Cyprus’s position as the legally correct one under the customary international law of the sea.

Ironically, as negotiations with Cyprus necessarily involve recognition of the Republic of Cyprus, these seemingly intractable maritime disputes may prove to be the catalyst for the long-sought but ever-elusive “grand bargain” involving Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey. In return for some maritime concessions plus a seat at the table at the EastMed Gas Forum or similar energy extraction or distribution consortia, perhaps Turkey could be enticed both to resolve the “Cyprus problem” and to reach equitable maritime boundary delimitations with Greece. Such a hope could very well prove to be chimeric; numerous prior attempts at reconciliation have begun with giddy expectations but ended in impasse and frustration. But for Turkey to realize its “blue homeland” aspirations, there really appears to be no attractive alternative. The recent discovery by Turkey of significant hydrocarbon deposits in its Black Sea waters, alluded to earlier, may provide Turkey with some space to back off of some of its bellicose and uncompromising pronouncements regarding accommodation in the Eastern Mediterranean as a policy option. 


Turkey’s “Mavi Vatan” strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean is beset with difficulties. Neither geography nor the law are kind to Turkey, leaving it, in the absence of equitable boundary adjustments, with limited waters in which it can legitimately claim sovereign rights over the related hydrocarbon resources. Its efforts to belligerently assert rights in contravention of the law and in defiance of the international community have only succeeded in portraying Turkey as an international pariah, elicited a chorus of condemnation, and solidified support, both verbal and material, for rival claimants. It has also left Turkey on the outside looking in with respect to developing regional cooperative energy ventures. Though militarily powerful, Turkey is not sufficiently strong to impose its will through the threat or use of force. This is especially true since there is a strong likelihood – or at least a sufficient likelihood so that Turkey can’t lightly ignore it – that powerful regional or EU nations may go to the assistance of Greece or Cyprus in response to Turkey’s use or threatened use of armed force.

Turkey’s options in pursuit of its “Mavi Vatan” strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean appear to be to remain belligerent and defiant, which will get it nothing but further isolation and ostracism, or to pursue a compromise, which would get it some, but not all, of what it would like. As a further complication, Turkey’s stance toward the ROC would have to change in order to pursue the compromise option, which, in addition to the maritime boundary compromise itself, would be a bitter domestic pill for the Erdoğan government to swallow. However, the recent discovery of what has been billed as significant Black Sea hydrocarbon reserves may allay what might otherwise be viewed as a retreat in the Eastern Mediterranean; and beyond its political usefulness, may prove to be a viable alternative, in whole or in part, to the Eastern Mediterranean as a means of pursuing “Mavi Vatan.”  

Andrew Norris is a retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain and holds a Juris Doctorate. His last assignment in the Coast Guard was as the Robert J. Papp, Jr. Professor of Maritime Security at the U.S. Naval War College. He currently works as a maritime legal and regulatory consultant. He may be reached at

Alexander Norris is a third-year undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania currently pursuing a double-major in international relations and diplomatic history, with minors in both Middle Eastern Studies and Hispanic Studies. He published an article titled, “One Island, Two Cypruses: A Realist Examination of Turkey’s Recent Actions in the Eastern Mediterranean,” in the Spring 2020 SIR Journal of International Relations, and is an editor for the University of Pennsylvania’s premier journal on Middle Eastern affairs. He may be reached at

*Editor’s Note: This statement was originally attributed to Prime Minister Erdogan, when it was spoken by Commander Ağmış. 

1. Per UNCLOS Article 56, a State possesses the exact same entitlements in its declared Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as it does in its continental shelf. Also, like the continental shelf, the maximum EEZ breadth is 200 nautical miles from its baseline. The terms “EEZ” and “continental shelf” can thus be used interchangeably to describe the source of a State’s entitlement to sovereign rights over subsurface hydrocarbon resources.

Featured Image: The Turkish vessel Oruc Reis is escorted into Greek waters midway between Crete and Cyprus by five Turkish Navy vessels on Monday, August 10, 2020. (Photo via Turkish Defense Ministry)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.