Dangerous Isles: Even Barren Rocks Attract Conflict

Patriotism and profit are at the core of a dozen real and potential territorial disputes around the globe.

SEOUL had never seen anything like it. Students, workers, and citizens filled the streets leading to their target. Banners and threats of violence flaunted their rage. Dark phalanxes of Darth-Vader-clad riot police struggled to hold them back. To be sure, huge demonstrations are not rare in South Korea. But this protest was not, as so many before, against the government. It was aimed at the Japanese embassy, against Japan, and in support of the assertion of South Korea's rights in Tokto.

Tokto is a pair of barren rocks, less than one-tenth of a square mile, which juts out of the Sea of Japan. Both Tokyo and Seoul have long claimed Tokto by historical right. But the dispute flared up in mid-February when the Koreans built a new wharf, and Japan made ready to declare a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, EEZ, around Tokto. It was a flammable mixture of old nationalism and the new Law of the Sea Treaty. The treaty gives all coastal nations exclusive rights to fish, mine, and drill for oil 200 miles out to sea and around their island possessions. It also expands territorial waters to a 12-mile limit, which means that every speck of land in an international sea carries with it as much as 452 square miles of national sovereignty.

The combination of volatile patriotism and strategic and material advantage is at the core of a dozen real and potential disasters being played out around the globe - not to mention dozens of other disputed land boundaries in both hemispheres.

Several weeks ago, American intervention kept Greece and Turkey from shooting it out over Imia, another cluster of uninhabited rocks, in the Aegean Sea, four miles from the Turkish coast. The entire area is highly charged. If Greece were to apply the 12-mile territorial limit, let alone the EEZ, to all its hundreds of islands, the Aegean would be a Greek lake - and Turkey says it would go to war.

The consequences of war between NATO allies would be profound. Chauvinist elements accused Greece's new prime minister, Costas Simitis, of treason for accepting Washington's appeal. It would not take much to heat things up again.

Last December, a new confrontation exploded in a firefight - resulting in casualties, wounded fighters, and prisoners - between Eritrea and Yemen over Greater Hanish in the Red Sea. Yemen has planned a hotel and scuba diving center there, but this would hardly have been the reason for Eritrea's attack. The Hanish group lies near Bab el Mandeb, one of the world's maritime choke points, and could control the sea lanes to and from the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba. The United States was interested enough to broker a cease-fire, which may or may not hold.

Tourism may well have figured in the case of Ligitan and Sipadan. These islands lie east of Borneo and are claimed by both Malaysia and Indonesia. They are said to be among the best diving spots in the world.

The twin urges of patriotism and profit arise most clearly in the Spratly archipelago, lying between Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Composed of hundreds of islands, reefs, and sandbanks over almost 40,000 square miles, the Spratlys did not figure actively in any geopolitical scheme until oil was discovered in 1976. Now China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia claim all or some of the Spratlys and have garrisoned individual islands. All but Malaysia have had naval skirmishes over the issue. Philippine commandos destroyed a Chinese outpost on the appropriately named Mischief Reef, and their gunboats have played lethal tag near the Philippines. Many fear that China, extending its military power and having taken the Paracel Islands farther north, may use the Spratlys to dominate the entire South China Sea with the super-seaway between Singapore and Japan. The US Navy is no longer around to contain the Chinese, having left its Philippine base in Subic Bay in 1992.

The Spratlys are not the only object of China's desire. Japan's Senkaku Islands - five tiny, uninhabited rocks south of Okinawa in the East China Sea - are claimed by China and also by Taiwan for the usual reasons. A UN survey says they may lie within a 39,000-square-mile oilfield.

Strategy, rather than acquisition of oil, may be key to Iran's occupation of three islands in the Persian Gulf - the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa - claimed by the United Arab Emirates. The islands could block the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes 20 percent of the world's oil production. The US says Iran has installed anti-aircraft missiles and heavy artillery there. Chinese-made Silkworm medium-range ground-to-ground missiles are on the nearby Iranian mainland.

The Falkland Islands war between Britain and Argentina is a classic example of how and why these claims escalate. Argentina, which was defeated in that war, remains determined to gain, or regain, the Falklands, although force is ruled out, at least for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, disputed islands need not lead to trouble. The US was willing to give Colombia three Caribbean guano islands (valuable for seabird droppings as a source of nitrogen fertilizer) in return for fishing rights. However, the US still holds another - Navassa Island in the Jamaica Channel - long claimed by Haiti and useful, perhaps, to Haitian nationalists at some convenient time.

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