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The Greek island of Kos lies just 2.5 miles across a narrow channel from the popular Turkish coastal resort of Bodrum. For years a nearly forgotten dot on a map, this sometimes treacherous crossing has become all too familiar, as thousands of migrants, mainly refugees from Syria and beyond, risk their lives each day trying to make their way over the chilly waters.
Under a deal struck in early March between the European Union, the migrants’ target destination, and Turkey, their chief transit country, the flow of people may ease. Something else that the deal might ease: tensions between two historically hostile NATO members, Greece and Turkey.
Signs of rapprochement are everywhere. Since late March, Turkish monitors have been based in some of the Greek islands to observe the transfer of refugees and migrants back to Turkey as part of the recent migrant deal. Their presence seems to mark another positive step in a long-running process that began in earnest back in 1999. That was when successive earthquakes hit Istanbul and then Athens, prompting a wave of sympathy and contact between the two countries.
Since then, bilateral trade has jumped, professional exchanges have soared, and the country’s respective prime ministers have handed out roses on the waterfront at Izmir, which was formerly the largely Greek inhabited city of Smyrna and is still a touchstone for Greek nationalist sentiment.
Yet, just around Bodrum’s corner, a few miles offshore, a tiny islet known as Imia in Greece and Kardak in Turkish comes into view. A few months ago, this nondescript lump covered in wiry brushwood and maquis was the scene of an angry confrontation between Greek and Turkish coast guards over who had the right to rescue refugees shipwrecked on its shores. The Greeks reportedly took them in the end.
In early 2015, too, a Turkish submarine surfaced between the islet and two Greek fishing boats to keep them away, and in 2014, a standoff between Greek coast guards and another Turkish sub brought angry recriminations from both sides’ capitals.
Go back further still and in 1995, Greece and Turkey came close to war here, as shepherds, nationalist journalists, Greek navy sailors, and finally Turkish commandos raised their respective flags over the barren rock. With war drums beating, the United States was eventually obliged to send naval units and diplomats to calm things down.
Indeed, as hopeful as things might seem between Greece and Turkey now, their disputes over the Aegean—including maritime and aviation boundaries, exclusive economic zones, military facilities, trade routes, potential oil and gas reserves, and ownership of disputed islets—have never really been resolved.
And that has gotten in the way of European refugee efforts, particularly the deployment to the Aegean of NATO Maritime Group 2, a flotilla of British, Dutch, French, German, Greek, and Turkish warships sent to assist the EU border agency Frontex by reporting sightings of refugee boats.
The mission was promoted as a major step in NATO–EU cooperation. It was also a covert reassertion of NATO strength in a region seeing increasing Russian activity. But with no agreement on which waters are Turkish and which Greek, the entire mission was almost derailed. In October 2015, the Greek foreign ministry had rejected an earlier German proposal that Turkey and Greece conduct joint patrols in the Aegean to monitor refugee movements, but the idea was taken up again and expanded by NATO in February 2016. NATO then authorized the deployment of the maritime group, but for several weeks there was no movement, as arguments between Ankara and Athens over where ships should be deployed took place. Eventually a deal was struck and the group deployed in mid-March.
Officials and observers in NATO and the EU have called on the countries to settle their differences, once and for all. But, despite relatively friendly relations between the two countries’ leaderships, domestic political pressures still make a resolution difficult.
With some 2,400 islands and islets spread across the Aegean, most of them Greek and with the closest only a mile off the Turkish coast, deciding maritime boundaries and continental shelves was never going to be easy.
The issue, however, scarcely came up until the early 1970s, when a combination of the 1973 oil crisis and the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus meant that the Aegean could no longer be ignored. In response to the oil crisis, Turkey sent seismic exploration vessels into waters claimed by Greece. And in response to the invasion, Greece deployed troops onto islands that Turkey—and international treaties—insisted should be demilitarized.
In 1995, tensions ratcheted up again when Greece signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The treaty allows states to claim territorial waters up to 12 miles off their coasts, double the six miles both countries had previously accepted.
If Greece were to enforce such a 12-mile limit, it would take control of 71.5 percent of the Aegean’s waters, leaving just 8.5 percent for Turkey and 20 percent for international shipping lanes, according to a 2011 report by the International Crisis Group.
The international waters would also be noncontiguous, meaning that passage through the Aegean for the vast majority of Turkey’s maritime trade, which goes through Istanbul and Izmir, might require permission from the Greek authorities. In 1995, Turkey thus declared that any unilateral extension to 12 miles by Greece would be an act of war. De-escalating fast, Athens never enforced more than its six-mile claim, although it still insists that it has 12.
Meanwhile, also under UNCLOS, which Turkey has not signed, countries are given Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) tied to their continental shelves. An EEZ entitles the possessor to exploit all the resources below its surface—including the fish and potentially oil and gas—although there is no solid evidence that there are any hydrocarbons beneath the Aegean floor.
Greece argues that its islands have continental shelves of their own, whereas Turkey insists that they do not. Instead, Ankara argues, a dividing line should be drawn halfway between each country’s mainland coasts. Given that the Greek islands are strung right across the Aegean, this would place many of them on Turkey’s continental shelf and within its EEZ. Conversely, if Greece’s argument prevailed, almost all the Aegean would become a Greek EEZ.
A codicil to this dispute is the Greek island of Kastellorizo, which lies 78 miles east of Rhodes and 170 miles north of Cyprus. If the Greek argument prevailed, the small island would provide a bridge linking the Greek and Cypriot EEZs, which to Ankara might look like a solid Greek zone, surrounding both its Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.
Meanwhile, since 1931, Greece has also claimed a ten-nautical mile limit in the air; subsequent international conventions have generally declared that airspace is the same as maritime. Turkey routinely challenges the original Greek claim by flying within the six to ten mile band. Indeed, as recently as March 16, Athens reported five airspace violations by Turkish military jets in a single day. Turkey has also periodically directly overflown Greek islands with warplanes, and interceptions of those planes have led to several deaths and frequent near-collisions.
At various times, both Turkey and Greece have agreed to take their Aegean disputes to legal arbitration (with generally disappointing results for the Greeks). Further, since 2010, the Greece–Turkey High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC), which was formed in 2010 as part of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy, has convened four times, with the Aegean one of the many issues discussed. Since 1976, too, both countries have officially undertaken to negotiate a settlement of the delineation of the continental shelf under the Bern Protocol.
Yet these negotiations continue to be fruitless. The most recent HLCC, in early March, announced a number of new trade deals, for example, but it signaled no movement on the Aegean.
By now, though, there is likely little new left for either side to say about a potential solution. Some of the best legal minds have already been working on the issue for decades. What would have to be done—either via direct agreement or International Court of Justice arbitration—is already well known. The problem lies more in the domestic political climate in both countries, which makes declaring any compromise extremely difficult. A recent survey by the London-based Hellenic Observatory, for example, found that only 11.4 percent of the Greek political, military, and professional elite “trusted” Turkey.
Aside from the long historical memory of conflict between the two countries—both tend to define their very existence as the result of war with the other—both sides routinely inflame nationalist passions. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s recent assertion that Kastelorizo should be left out of any Aegean settlement (which would render Greece’s EEZ much smaller and disconnected from Cyprus), and Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos’ helicopter visit to Imia/Kardak on first taking office last year are but two more recent examples.
Yet without a settlement, a number of major benefits will remain out of reach of both nations.
First, under these circumstances, there would be no comprehensive oil and gas exploration in the Aegean. Second, it would impede Turkey’s EU accession, since candidate states have to resolve all territorial issues with EU members before they can join. Third, the lack of agreement on maritime boundaries would impede future agreement on Cyprus’ territorial limits, too, as well as the exploitation of eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons. In addition, Turkey’s reluctance to sign UNCLOS, which is connected to the Aegean dispute, hurts its legal standing in disagreements over limits in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. Fourth, the militarization of the Aegean is a costly and unproductive use of resources for both sides, but particularly for cash-strapped Greece.
Given all this, Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, a Greek professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, has argued that it is time to try to create more institutional relations between Athens and Ankara, with a built-in set of obligations under a formal treaty of friendship. France and Germany managed the feat after World War II, with a structured and thorough program of reconciliation, involving the public as well as politicians. The idea has been reportedly well received in both capitals.
In the meantime, however, back in Bodrum, a wintry wind continues to blow. Although the physical distance between Greece and Turkey might be small, the political gulf remains vast.