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The historic function of the international law of the sea has long been recognized as that of achieving an appropriate balance between the special exclusive demands of coastal states, and other special claimants, and the general inclusive demands of all other states in the world arena. Historically, the record is familiar: the oceans of the world were at one time claimed for the exclusive use of a limited number of states, but concern for the more general interest of the whole community of states ultimately succeeded in freeing the larger expanses of the oceans for relatively unhampered use by all. The knowledge is equally familiar, however, that coastal states never surrendered their claim to exclusive and comprehensive authority over certain adjacent areas of the sea and that, even after a consensus developed that states were not to exercise continuing and comprehensive authority beyond a relatively narrow belt of such waters, it was quickly discovered that the occasional exercise of some coastal authority beyond this belt had necessarily to be honored if the special interests of the coastal state were to be given adequate protection. Through several centuries of interaction, of particular claim and general community acceptance or rejection, a body of principles and process of decision were thus developed which achieved a compromise between demands of coastal and noncoastal states, roughly corresponding to exclusive and inclusive claims, effectively internationalizing in the common interest a great resource covering two thirds of the earth's surface.

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