The Republic of Cyprus (RoC) has begun talks with US-based Noble Energy regarding the exploitation of an offshore gas field. The Aphrodite field lies near Cyprus’ maritime border with Israel; Noble is also developing the Leviathan field on Israel’s side of the line. But for Cyprus, developing its underwater resources is proving more difficult than it appears on the surface.
Since it first began issuing offshore exploration licenses last decade, the RoC government has come under pressure from Turkey and the Turkish-backed breakaway government in northern Cyprus, both of which claim rights to Cypriot waters. The RoC has been proactive and diligent in establishing its maritime boundaries in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), signing bilateral border agreements and cross-border development agreements with its neighbors Egypt, Israel, and Lebanon (though Lebanon has not yet ratified the latter). But Turkey and its client state the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) are not party to UNCLOS, and have thus far refused to recognize the legitimacy of Cyprus’ borders.
According to Turkey’s own interpretation of maritime law, island states cannot claim maritime zones that conflict with or limit the rights of coastal states. Turkey’s arbitrarily- and unilaterally-determined Mediterranean border with Egypt overlaps with several of the blocs Cyprus has opened to exploration. Meanwhile, the TRNC government (recognized only by Turkey) has long held that RoC has no right to develop resources without TRNC’s approval and participation. Seeking to force the issue, TRNC has recently demarcated its own exploration blocs—which overlap substantially with RoC’s—and issued exploration licenses to the Turkish national petroleum company. In an effort to intimidate RoC and its foreign partners, Turkey has repeatedly sent survey vessels into Cypriot waters accompanied by warships. The Turkish petroleum company has also started an onshore drilling operation in the Turkish-controlled north of the island.
Since the 1970s, the United Nations has worked to resolve the conflict between the RoC and TRNC. Meanwhile, the international community has almost unanimously supported RoC’s right to develop the country’s resources. For its part, RoC’s government has tried to use the issue of resource development to encourage a peaceful, permanent settlement with the Turkish north, and has made repeated assurances that under a comprehensive, federal reunification, both sides of the island would benefit equally from gas and oil exploitation. Unfortunately for all parties involved, the provocative actions of Turkey and TRNC stand in the way of Cyprus’ best chance of a prosperous future.