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Turkey and Greece: overlapping claims and growing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean

Without a doubt, the 2010s can be labelled as the decade of great natural gas hype in the Eastern Mediterranean. Over these years, exploration of hydrocarbon reserves in the region intensified and news about major gas discoveries frequently appeared in the headlines. But the reason why this region is in the spotlight today is somewhat different: the region is increasingly drawing attention in connection with the escalating tensions between Turkey and Greece over their overlapping claims for maritime territories, and over the pursuit of energy resources in the contested waters.

The recent tensions between the two countries cannot be described simply as a new episode of fluctuating Turkish-Greek relations. The present situation can be best conceptualised as a multidimensional conflict with wide-ranging regional implications, involving issues regarding energy security, hard security, international law, economy and broader geopolitics, if not more. Although the pursuit of natural gas wealth can be identified as a central motif behind the tensions, one can clearly see that the present situation has exceeded the framework of an energy resource conflict. The ongoing confrontation further securitises energy politics in the region, highlights the vulnerability of the regime of the law of the sea, triggers internal tensions within the NATO, and involves questions of hegemony and regional balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The conflict stems from the fact that there are no agreed-on maritime boundaries between Turkey and Greece. The two countries contest each other’s claims over maritime territories and thus dispute each other’s respective rights to search for energy resources underwater in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. In general, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) gives guidance to states about their maritime boundaries and rights. Since Turkey is not a party to the convention, UNCLOS can neither serve as a basis for border delimitation nor be the basis for dispute settlement between Turkey and Greece. Tensions between the two countries regarding their maritime boundaries and rights have historical precedents, and even include proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) from the 70s, which was instituted by Greece to delimit the continental shelf in the Aegean Sea. The court, however, found that it had no jurisdiction to entertain the application filed by Greece.

Since energy security aspirations and the determination to become a regional energy hub became important organising principles of Turkish foreign policy, Ankara has increasingly focused on energy projects, including the search for potential gas reserves in the waters around the country. In line with this, Turkey has periodically intensified its exploration activities for hydrocarbon resources in the contested waters as well, where Turkish claims over maritime territories clash with those of Greece or Cyprus. Although not for the first time in history, tensions rose to new levels in late July and early August this year. One of the key triggers was when a Turkish research vessel, named Oruç Reis, accompanied by navy ships, was sent to the contested waters between Cyprus and Crete and in response, Greece sent its navy vessels to block Turkey’s further moves in that area. Alongside a show of force in the seas, an intensifying battle of words has unfolded between the leadership of the two countries. Moreover, on 6 August Greece concluded a maritime border agreement with Egypt, which Turkey claims to be null and void.

Earlier, in late 2019, Turkey had concluded its own agreement on the delimitation of its maritime border with Libya, which is disputed by other actors within and beyond the region. These are just some of the numerous fault lines which have led to a confrontation in the region. Although it was Turkey-Greece tensions that recently came to the forefront, it should not be ignored that similar overlapping claims can be identified between Turkey and Cyprus as well. However, Turkey’s relations with Cyprus are even more complicated: Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, but it is the only country that recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which was proclaimed in 1983, nine years after Turkish military intervention led to the de facto partition of the island.

Along with the continued drillings, naval presence in the region has increased, and the rhetoric on all sides is becoming harsher. As a result, the Eastern Mediterranean is now not only a maritime territory where competition for energy resources can be identified but also the scene of rival naval exercises, in which not only Turkey and Greece but also actors both regional (Cyprus) and non-regional (France and Italy) take part. Although the parties are raising the stakes in this geopolitical rivalry, the chance of an open armed conflict remains rather limited, as it is in neither party’s interest. The present situation is more about Turkey’s attempt to increase its wiggle room and to compensate for its isolation from the natural gas-oriented cooperation of other actors in the region, such as the East Mediterranean Gas Forum or the proposed EastMed Pipeline project. The de-escalation of the present situation will definitely require diplomatic efforts and tools, and a lasting solution could be the delimitation of the maritime borders in a way that is acceptable for both parties. However, without strong political will, such a positive turn is highly unlikely, and the present tensions might remain recurring events of the regional security situation.

Despite these tensions, Turkey seems to be determined to continue its oil and gas exploration under the seabed, since, on the one hand, Ankara does not want to miss any chance to gain benefits from the region’s energy assets, and aims to turn them into a foundation of its regional power status. On the other hand, securing domestic gas supplies is of primary importance for Turkey, a country which is approximately 99 per cent dependent on gas imports. Moreover, it seems that, to some extent, Turkey will be able to compensate for its so-far-unsuccessful gas exploration activities in the contested waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The announcement of an estimated 320 bcm of gas find in the Black Sea in Turkey’s maritime territory is a promising outlook for the country. Once production commences, the gas coming from the Sakarya field will strengthen Turkey’s ability to decrease its reliance on gas imports. In this regard, it should be highlighted that the discovery came in a very fortunate moment from Turkey’s perspective: many of the country’s long-term gas supply contracts will expire in the coming years, and the new gas discovery will undoubtedly become a useful bargaining tool for Ankara when it comes to renegotiating its expiring gas contracts with foreign suppliers.

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