In recent years, the People’s Republic of China has alarmed its neighbors by aggressively asserting sovereignty over vast portions of the South China Sea, a claim demarcated through what is commonly called the “9-dash-line.”
While the United States has abstained from taking a position on China’s claims, it has expressed strong reservations over the manner in which it has pushed to impose its position on its neighbors, rather than seeking to resolve the matter through negotiation and arbitration.
Much closer to the U.S., the “Bolivarian Socialist” Republic of Venezuela is similarly using a historical claim to assert its own “nine-dash-line” in the Caribbean, in a gambit with significant strategic implications for the U.S. and in security in the region.
Venezuela is staking a claim to the vast Essequibo region, approximately two-thirds of the current territory of its neighbor Guyana, along with the waters defined by the continental shelf of the claimed area. This is where an international consortium led by Exxon Mobil, operating under a license with the Guyanese government, discovered a large oil deposit with a market value—estimated by outside sources—of $40 billion.
The area in question had been awarded to Guyana, then under British control, in an 1899 arbitration ruling. In 1962, Venezuela formally declared its desire to challenge the long-standing ruling, and, in 1983, declared that it would no longer defer settlement of the matter. The dispute was given relatively little attention until October 2013, when Venezuelan military detained the oil exploration vessel Teknik Perdana for conducting exploratory operations in the area without a permit from Venezuela.
Technically, the 2013 incident involved a different Venezuelan claim, based on a maritime line drawn from the current, internationally accepted land border—but the seizure suddenly heightened tensions between the two countries. It was also, arguably, the technical confirmation of significant commercially-recoverable quantities of oil in the offshore portion of the disputed area that led Venezuela to press its claim in a far more aggressive fashion.
On May 25, 2015, Venezuela issued presidential decree 1787, re-affirming its claim and linking it to a new “Integrated Defense Maritime Zone” to be defended by the Venezuelan armed forces. The decree eerily paralleled China’s declaration of an “Air Defense Identification Zone” over disputed territories in the South China Sea in November 2013.
Indeed, the action was so aggressive that Colombia, whose own maritime limits with Venezuela in the Caribbean were also threatened, protested the zone.
In the weeks following the assertion of the new military zone, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro declared that his country would began registering the people who live in the territory of Essequibo (under Guyanese administration even before the 1899 arbitration formally awarded Guyana control), with Venezuelan identity cards. How it would do so, though, remains unclear—whether Venezuelan military or government officials would physically enter Guyanese territory to register Venezuela’s new citizens.
The Venezuelan government is also using economic pressure. In July, it announced that it was suspending its purchases of Guyanese rice, a significant blow given that Venezuela has traditionally bought 40 percent of the nation’s rice export.
As with China’s small neighbors sharing the South China Sea, Guyana lacks the military capabilities to prevail over Venezuela. Guyana’s newly elected President David Granger has repeatedly affirmed his interest in settling the dispute through diplomatic and legal channels, yet has also vowed to defend Guyana’s sovereign territory if necessary, and has reportedly convened Guyana’s Defense Board.
Should the United States act?
As in the East China Sea, the United States should avoid taking a position on the merits of Venezuela’s legal claim. Yet the U.S. arguably has an interest in making a strong stand in support of the integrity of national borders, and in this case Guyana’s security against Venezuelan attempts at intimidation.
This should include reinforcing the right of Guyana to manage Stabroek (the offshore oil block under dispute) and the country’s other offshore oil blocks, as well as its maritime territories and land. Through this effort, the U.S. must also emphasize that any change to the internationally-recognized status quo can only be re-negotiated through international legal and diplomatic means.
If not strongly condemned by the international community, Venezuela’s aggressive rhetoric and actions will have troublesome implications for the stability of the region. Would the states of the region be equally silent if Colombia began to threaten Nicaraguan fishermen operating near San Andres Island, based on its discontent with the 2013 International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision? Should Chile have a similar right to declare a maritime defense zone in parts of its maritime frontier with Peru, awarded to the latter by the ICJ in 2014, if Chile were to decide that the award was unjust?
If there was ever a dispute in which the Organization of American States (OAS) should play a role in resolving, it is this one. Venezuela has sought mediation from virtually every organization except for the OAS in the matter, including the United Nations and CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States). Yet the OAS is the only one of these organizations that is both representative of the region’s political and legal traditions, has the bureaucratic structures to resolve disputes of this nature, and includes the United States, which was a key party to the 1899 arbitration decision at the heart of the present dispute (ironically, the U.S. argued for Venezuela’s claim, at the time).
Standing by Guyana against Venezuela’s present pre-emptive actions and attempts at intimidation also advances the U.S. agenda of democracy and rule of law in the region. On May 11, 2015, Guyana held elections that were broadly characterized as free and fair by international monitors from at least 10 nations. In those elections, the multi-ethnic “A Partnership for National Unity” (APNU)—“Alliance for Change” (AFC) coalition successfully defeated the indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party (PPP) that had ruled the country for 23 years.
While it is too early to really assess the new APNU-AFC government in Guyana, to date President Granger has shown himself to be a statesman and a democrat, responding with dignity and restraint to the accusations and insults of President Maduro. This is welcome in a region undergoing a dramatic transition, including the re-integration of Cuba into its economic and political structures, the unfolding collapse of Venezuela, and the expansion of China’s presence throughout the region.
As with China’s heavy-handed attempt to impose its territorial claims, embodied by the “nine dash line,” in the South China Sea, Venezuela’s assertion of rights over two-thirds of Guyana’s territory and associated waters must be resolved by diplomacy and international legal mechanisms—not by military, diplomatic and economic intimidation. In standing up for Guyana’s freedom from coercion, the United States and other regional neighbors will be defending democracy, rule of law, the international normative order and those who share those values.