top of page

Forgotten Conflicts Part 1 – The long border: Canada-US territorial disputes

Though sometimes described as the world’s longest undefended border, the territorial demarcation between Canada and the United States is not as clear as the poetic epithet might suggest. The two states have numerous territorial disputes stretching from the Atlantic border to the Arctic Ocean, which occasionally elevates tension between the generally cordial neighbours. They also highlight how the US Senate’s failure to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) undermines Washington’s influence abroad. At the same time, the way Ottawa and Washington handle their disputes provides important lessons for other states.

As with most territorial disputes, the Canadian-US border debates are legacies of the European colonial empires. Over the last two hundred years, all but five have been resolved. These include the Machias Seal Island and North Rock dispute on the Atlantic border, the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the Pacific continental border, the mutually claimed Dixon Entrance on the Alaska-Canada border, the status of the Northwest Passage and the Beaufort Sea dispute. Notably, the outstanding disputes are on maritime borders. While all the land claims between the two states have been resolved, the maritime disputes persist and occasionally generate friction.

In a normal year, lobstermen from Maine and New Brunswick collect their catch around Machias Seal Island and North Rock without contention, operating under informal rules that each side respects. But in July 2015, lobster prices skyrocketed and new lobstermen moved in, upsetting the 240-year balance. Some locals warned clashes over trap numbers and catch sizes could lead to violence. Both the Maine Department of Marine Resources and Fisheries and Oceans Canada insist they enforce the fishing rules but the lobstermen accuse the organisations of discriminating according to nationality. If high prices are sustained, Ottawa and Washington may have to act on this dispute before the animosity escalates.

The Beaufort Sea disagreement made headlines in March 2016. Canada and the US have overlapping claims to a wedge-shaped parcel of ocean owing to a dispute over whether the border runs due north or ninety degrees from the coast. Earlier this year, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) issued a proposal for new oil and gas drilling leases in the area. The Yukon government protested the proposal as a violation of Canada’s sovereignty, prompting US Secretary of State John Kerry to request consultation from BOEM before any lease sales go ahead.

Both the Beaufort Sea and Machias Seal Island and North Rock disputes are intriguing footnotes in international law. In 1984, Canada and the US submitted their cases regarding the Atlantic border to the International Court of Justice, and both abide by its ruling. However, both sides agreed to leave out Machias Seal Island and North Rock for fear of losing sovereignty over more important features in the area. The Arctic dispute could also be solved by an international court under UNCLOS. Yet, while the US strictly adheres to UNCLOS, it is not a signatory due to Senate opposition. This leads the seemingly trivial dispute between friendly neighbours to have much larger and more dangerous international implications.

On 12 July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration determined that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has no legal basis for its historical claims in the South China Sea. In doing so, the court rejected the PRC’s treatment of the area as its sovereign territory, including its practice of island building. Despite being a signatory to UNCLOS, Beijing has dismissed the court’s findings and threatened to escalate tension by declaring an air defence identification zone over the entire region. The US in turn has pressed the PRC to respect international law, the results of which favoured its ally, the Philippines. This contrasts sharply with Washington’s own refusal to recognise UNCLOS, undermining its position.

Alternatively, the multiple claimants to the South China Sea could draw more positive lessons from the Canada-US border disputes than a habit of ignoring international law. From the Beaufort Sea disagreement, the PRC and the Philippines could learn that a territorial dispute does not need to be resolved as long as both sides treat each other’s claim with respect. There are already some indications of this behaviour in the South China Sea, with Beijing offering Manila an olive branch if bilateral cooperation can be agreed upon. The Machias Seal Island and North Rock dispute also shows that international rulings can produce agreeable results if the contentious elements are addressed while the least important features are left to future resolution—contradicting the presiding orthodoxy of putting aside tough arguments in pursuit of more achievable goals.

The most important lesson from the Canada-US border disputes is that territorial claims can remain outstanding for hundreds of years with little impact on bilateral relations. Where conflict in the South China Sea is not just possible but almost expected, the thought of war between Canada and the US over lobsters is absurd. Though hampered by the Senate’s refusal to sign UNCLOS, the US can still appeal to cooler heads in East Asia by referencing the peaceful nature of its forgotten conflicts with Canada.

William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Scottish Dream Photography (Flickr: Creative Commons)

bottom of page