Generally, being landlocked creates political and economic handicaps that access to the high seas avoids. For this reason, states large and small across history have striven to gain access to open waters, even at great expense in wealth, bloodshed, and political capital.
The economic disadvantages of being landlocked can be alleviated or aggravated depending on degree of development, language barriers, and other considerations. Some landlocked countries are quite affluent, such as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Austria, all of which, excluding Luxembourg, which is a founding member of NATO, frequently employ neutrality to their political advantage. The majority, however, are classified as Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs). Nine of the twelve countries with the lowest Human Development Indices (HDI) are landlocked.
Historically, being landlocked has been disadvantageous to a country's development. It cuts a nation off from important sea resources such as fishing, and impedes or prevents direct access to seaborne trade, a crucial component of economic and social advance. As such, coastal regions tended to be wealthier and more heavily populated than inland ones. Paul Collier in his book The Bottom Billion argues that being landlocked in a poor geographic neighborhood is one of four major development "traps" by which a country can be held back. In general, he found that when a neighboring country experiences better growth, it tends to spill over into favorable development for the country itself. For landlocked countries, the effect is particularly strong, as they are limited in their trading activity with the rest of the world. He states, "If you are coastal, you serve the world; if you are landlocked, you serve your neighbors." Others have argued that being landlocked may actually be a blessing as it creates a "natural tariff barrier" which protects the country from cheap imports. In some instances, this has led to more robust local food systems.
Landlocked developing countries have significantly higher costs of international cargo transportation compared to coastal developing countries (in Asia the ratio is 3:1).
Efforts to avoid being landlocked
Countries thus have made particular efforts to avoid being landlocked, by acquiring land that reaches the sea:
- As result of a 2005 territorial exchange with Ukraine, Moldova received a 600 m-long bank of the Danube River (which is an international waterway), subsequently building its Port of Giurgiulești there.
- The International Congo Society, which owned the territory now constituting the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was awarded a narrow piece of land cutting through Angola to connect it to the sea by the Conference of Berlin in 1885.
- The Republic of Ragusa once gave the town of Neum to the Ottoman Empire because it did not want to have a land border with Venice; this small municipality was inherited by Bosnia and Herzegovina and now provides limited sea access, splitting the Croatian part of the Adriatic coast in two. Since Bosnia and Herzegovina is a new country, railways and ports have not been built for its need. There is no freight port along its short coastline at Neum, making it effectively landlocked, although there are plans to change this. Instead the port of Ploče in Croatia is used.
- After World War I, in the Treaty of Versailles, a part of Germany designated "the Polish corridor" was given to the new Second Polish Republic, for access to the Baltic Sea. This gave Poland a short coastline, but without a large harbour. This was also the pretext for making Danzig (now Gdańsk) with its harbour the Free City of Danzig, to which Poland was given free access. However, the Germans placed obstacles to this free access, especially when it came to military material. In response, the small fishing harbour of Gdynia was soon greatly enlarged.
- Until the dissolution of Austria–Hungary in 1918 at the end of World War I, Austrians, Hungarians and that empire's other nationalities had served in that country's navy, but since then, Austria and Hungary have both been landlocked countries.
Countries can make agreements on getting free transport of goods through neighbor countries:
- The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to offer Czechoslovakia a lease for 99 years of parts of the ports in Hamburg and Stettin, allowing Czechoslovakia sea trade via the Elbe and Oder rivers. Stettin was annexed by Poland after World War II, but Hamburg continued the contract so that part of the port (now called Moldauhafen) may still be used for sea trade by a successor of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic.
- The Danube is an international waterway, and thus landlocked Austria, Hungary, Moldova, Serbia, and Slovakia have secure access to the Black Sea (the same access is given to inland parts of Germany and Croatia, though Germany and Croatia are not landlocked). However, oceangoing ships cannot use the Danube, so cargo must be transloaded anyway, and many overseas imports into Austria and Hungary use land transport from Atlantic and Mediterranean ports. A similar situation exists for the Rhine river where Switzerland has boat access, but not oceangoing ships. Luxembourg has such through the Moselle, but Liechtenstein has no boat access, even though it is located along the Rhine, as the Rhine is not navigable that far upstream.
- The Mekong is an international waterway so that landlocked Laos has access to the South China Sea (since Laos became independent from French Indochina). However, it is not navigable above the Khone Phapheng Falls.
- Free ports allow transshipment to short-distance ships or river vessels.
- The TIR Treaty allows sealed road transport without customs checks and charges, mostly in Europe.
Losing access to the sea is generally a great blow to a nation, politically, militarily, and economically. The following are examples of countries becoming landlocked.
- The independence of Eritrea, brought about by successful separatist movements, has caused Ethiopia to become landlocked.
- Montenegro's decision to abandon the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro caused the federal unit of Serbia to become a landlocked independent state.
- Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile in the War of the Pacific and accepted it in treaties signed in 1884 and 1904. The last treaty gives port storage facilities and special treatment for the transit of goods from and to Bolivia through Chilean ports and territory. Peru and Argentina have also given special treatment for the transit of goods. A fluvial Bolivian Navy, which did not exist at the time of the War of the Pacific, was created later and both trains and operates in Lake Titicaca and rivers. The Bolivian people annually celebrate a patriotic "Dia del Mar" (Day of the Sea) to remember its territorial loss, which included both the coastal city of Antofagasta and what has proven to be one of the most significant and lucrative copper deposits in the world. Early in the 21st century, the selection of the route of gas pipes from Bolivia to the sea fueled popular uprisings, as people were against the option of laying the pipes through Chilean territory.
- Austria and Hungary also lost their access to the sea as a consequence of the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1919) and the Treaty of Trianon (1920) respectively. Previously, although Croatia had a limited constitutional autonomy within the Kingdom of Hungary, the City of Fiume/Rijeka on the Croatian coast was governed directly from Budapest by an appointed governor as a corpus separatum, to provide Hungary with its only international port in the periods 1779–1813, 1822–1848 and 1868–1918.
- By 1801, the Nizam's dominion of Hyderabad State assumed the shape it is now remembered for: that of a landlocked princely state with territories in central Deccan, bounded on all sides by British India, whereas 150 years earlier it had had a considerable coastline on the Bay of Bengal which was annexed by the British.
- It is possible that one of the causes of the Paraguayan War was Paraguay's lack of direct ocean access (although this is disputed; see the linked article).
- When the Entente Powers divided the former Ottoman Empire under the Treaty of Sèvres at the close of World War I, Armenia was promised part of the Trebizond vilayet (roughly corresponding to the modern Trabzon and Rize provinces in Turkey). This would have given Armenia access to the Black Sea. However, the Sèvres treaty collapsed with the Turkish War of Independence and was superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which firmly established Turkish rule over the area.
- In 2011, South Sudan broke off from Sudan, causing the former to become landlocked. There still remains conflict over the oil fields in South Sudan between the two countries.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea now gives a landlocked country a right of access to and from the sea without taxation of traffic through transit states. The United Nations has a programme of action to assist landlocked developing countries, and the current responsible Undersecretary-General is Anwarul Karim Chowdhury.
Some countries have a long coastline, but much of it may not be readily usable for trade and commerce. For instance, in its early history, Russia's only ports were on the Arctic Ocean and frozen shut for much of the year. The wish to gain control of a warm-water port was a major motivator of Russian expansion towards the Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Pacific Ocean. On the other hand, some landlocked countries can have access to the ocean along wide navigable rivers. For instance, Paraguay (and Bolivia to a lesser extent) have access to the ocean through the Paraguay and Parana rivers.
Several countries have coastlines on landlocked bodies of water, such as the Caspian Sea and the Dead Sea. Since these seas are in effect lakes without access to wider seaborne trade, countries such as Kazakhstan are still considered landlocked. Although the Caspian Sea is connected to the Black Sea via the man-made Volga–Don Canal, large oceangoing ships are unable to traverse it.
Landlocked countries may be bordered by a single country having direct access to the high seas, two or more such countries, or be surrounded by other landlocked countries, making a country doubly landlocked.
Landlocked by a single country
Three countries are landlocked by a single country (enclaved countries):
Landlocked by two countries
Seven landlocked countries are surrounded by only two mutually bordering neighbours (semi-enclaved countries):
- Andorra (between France and Spain)
- Bhutan (between India and China)
- Eswatini (between South Africa and Mozambique)
- Liechtenstein (one of the "doubly landlocked" countries, between Switzerland and Austria)
- Moldova (between Ukraine and Romania)
- Mongolia (between Russia and China)
- Nepal (between India and China)
To this group could be added three de facto states with no or limited international recognition:
A country is "doubly landlocked" or "double-landlocked" when it is surrounded only by landlocked countries (requiring the crossing of at least two national borders to reach a coastline). There are two such countries:
- Liechtenstein in Central Europe, surrounded by Switzerland and Austria.
- Uzbekistan in Central Asia, surrounded by Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
After the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Württemberg became a doubly landlocked state, bordering only Bavaria, Baden, and Switzerland. There were no doubly landlocked countries from the unification of Germany in 1871 until the end of World War I. Liechtenstein bordered the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had an Adriatic coastline, and Uzbekistan was then part of the Russian Empire, which had both ocean and sea access.
With the dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918 and creation of an independent, landlocked Austria, Liechtenstein became the sole doubly landlocked country until 1938. In the Nazi Anschluss that year, Austria was absorbed into the Third Reich, which possessed a border on the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. After World War II, Austria regained its independence and Liechtenstein once again became doubly landlocked.
However, Uzbekistan's doubly landlocked status depends on the Caspian Sea's status dispute: some countries, especially Iran and Turkmenistan, claim that the Caspian Sea should be considered as a real sea (mainly because this way they would have larger oil and gas fields), which would make Uzbekistan only a simple landlocked country because its neighbours Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have access to the Caspian Sea.
List of landlocked countries and territories
- a Has a coastline on the saltwater Caspian Sea
- b Has a coastline on the saltwater Dead Sea
- c Not fully recognized
- d Landlocked by just one country
- Central Asian cluster (6): Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
- Central European cluster (9): Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Kosovo (partially recognized), Liechtenstein, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia and Switzerland
- West, Central and East African cluster (10): Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda
- South African cluster (4): Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe
- Caucasian cluster (3): Armenia, Azerbaijan, Artsakh (unrecognized)
- South American cluster (2): Bolivia, Paraguay
If Transnistria is included then Moldova and Transnistria form their own cluster, listed in parentheses in the table.
If it were not for the 40 km (25 mi) of coastline at Muanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo would join the two African clusters into one, making them the biggest contiguous group in the world. Also, the Central Asian and Caucasian clusters can be considered contiguous, joined by the landlocked Caspian Sea. Mongolia is almost part of this cluster too, being separated from Kazakhstan by only 30 km (19 mi), across Russian or Chinese territory.
There are the following "single" landlocked countries (each of them borders no other landlocked country):
- Africa (2): Eswatini (Swaziland), Lesotho
- Asia (5): Bhutan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, West Bank (partially recognized)
- Europe (6): Andorra, Belarus, Luxembourg, Moldova (if Transnistria is excluded), San Marino, and the State of the Vatican City
- Caucasus (1): South Ossetia (partially recognized)
If the Caucasian countries and Kazakhstan are counted as part of Europe, then Europe has the most landlocked countries, at 20. If these transcontinental countries are included in Asia, then Africa has the most, at 16. Depending on the status of the three transcontinental countries, Asia has between 9 and 15, while South America has only 2. North America and Oceania are the only continents with no landlocked countries (not including Antarctica, which has no countries).
- Convention on Transit Trade of Land-locked States
- Declaration recognising the Right to a Flag of States having no Sea-coast
- Enclave and exclave
- List of countries and territories by land and maritime borders
- List of countries that border only one other country
- List of landlocked U.S. states
- Navies of landlocked countries
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