More Nations Whip Up Squalls Over Tiny Isles


IF you are interested in forecasting conflicts between nations, you would do well to look to the seas.

Tucked away in various watery spots around the globe are several likely flash points: once obscure islands that are gaining in economic, strategic, and nationalistic importance.

In 1982, Britain and Argentina fought a war over the Falkland Islands in which about 1,000 people were killed. Today the potential for armed conflict is present or increasing in at least a half-dozen cases where nations disagree over other islands or island groups, experts say.

Some of the world's bigger islands - Ireland, Cyprus, and Taiwan - have long been the scene of strife and dispute. But in recent months, several countries have been at odds over much smaller ocean properties, some of them rocky outcroppings that can barely sustain human habitation.

Last December, 12 Yemenis were killed in fighting with Eritrean forces over the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea. Early this year the US had to soothe Turkey and Greece over their confrontation over a tiny island in the Aegean. Japan and South Korea this February bickered over a pair of bird-infested islets in the Sea of Japan.

For a variety of reasons, countries are becoming more interested in asserting claims to tiny bits of real estate they once ignored. ''More and more states are looking for offshore resources,'' says Gerald Blake, director of the International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU) at the University of Durham in Britain. ''The technology is there to do it, and this is one reason countries tend to be looking in places where they haven't been looking before.''

As global fishing stocks dwindle and technological advances make it cheaper to get to the oil, gas, and minerals on or under the sea floor, coastal nations are growing more serious about controlling a larger slice of oceans.

Many countries are in the process of ratifying a United Nations treaty that allows coastal states to declare a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in which they may control access to fish and mineral deposits.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which went into force in November 1994, title to an outlying island can dramatically expand the size of the EEZ a nation can claim. Although the treaty is bringing order to the world's seas, it is also giving countries a reason to pursue claims to disputed islands.

Strategic interests drive some island disputes. In 1971 Iran seized Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands, located at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. ''The time will come,'' says Mr. Blake, ''when the Arab world will want those islands back and [Persian] Iran will not be willing to give them back. I think [the islands are] very dangerous.''

Often intertwined with strategic concerns is a claimant's sense of national pride. Such cases appear more likely to produce conflict. ''Economic issues one can ultimately negotiate,'' says Jon Van Dyke, a professor of international law at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. ''But the strategic and national-pride issues frequently cannot be negotiated.''

Many island disputes are in Asia, where Mr. Van Dyke says there is little tradition of turning to a third party to resolve a dispute. In several places in Asia, he adds, ''we're seeing a logjam or stalemate.''

At the Monitor's request, Clive Schofield, deputy director of the University of Durham's IBRU, drew up a list of 10 island hot spots. Several other academics and international lawyers working on island issues generally concurred with Mr. Schofield's selection. Here then is a rough guide to islands and islets that have prompted armed conflict between nations or may do so in the future.

(Many of the islands are known by different names. Here the labels are those used most often by nonpartisan analysts.)


The Kuriles: Russia seized four islands in this chain in the closing days of World War II and Japan has demanded their return ever since. The area has rich fisheries and good mineral potential, and Russia claims the islands have strategic value in its defense against US nuclear-armed submarines.

Conflict seems unlikely, given Japan's pacifist Constitution, but experts say tensions could rise if a nationalist government comes to power in Russia and takes a harder line against returning the Kuriles.

The Senkakus: Now controlled by Japan but claimed by Taiwan and China, these islands are astride what may be the last unexplored oil fields in a temperate or tropical climactic zone - a cheaper place to drill than, say, Alaska.

In many instances where islands are disputed, oil and gas deposits are hypothetical at best. But the Chinese have conducted exploratory drilling in the Senkakus and found something every time, says Mark Valencia, a specialist in maritime issues at the East-West Center in Honolulu. Oil companies are interested in the area, he adds, but have stayed away because of the dispute.

In light of China's avowed interest in dominating the seas off its coasts, conflict is a possibility.

Sipadon and Ligaton: This pair of tiny islands boasts some of the world's best scuba diving, but Indonesia is angry that Malaysia has been developing the islands for tourism. Although the dispute seems unlikely to cause conflict, ''every once in a while it gives vent to nationalist fervor in both countries,'' Mr. Valencia observes.

The Spratlys: Disputed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, the Spratlys are perhaps the world's most volatile group of islands. More than 70 Vietnamese sailors died in 1988, when China seized a a half-dozen reefs.

The Chinese and Vietnamese claims are intensely nationalistic. Energy-poor Taiwan and the Philippines are interested because of possible, though unproven, oil and gas reserves. But even speculation about energy resources is enough to fix countries' interest. ''The question comes up time and time again: Is there any oil in the Spratlys?'' says Valencia. As long as there is even a possibility of oil, he adds, ''No country is going to let go of its claim.'' The islands also have strategic value because of proximity to international shipping lanes.

In February 1995, the Philippine Navy discovered a Chinese structure on Mischief Reef, an atoll that it claimed. A brief skirmish followed, after which China agreed to negotiate future disputes.

A six-year old Indonesian effort to have the six countries negotiate a resolution does have the parties talking instead of fighting. ''On the other hand,'' says Valencia, ''they have passionately avoided the gut issues'' of jurisdiction, maritime rights, and possible joint development of resources. All the countries but Brunei have stationed troops in the Spratlys.

Tokdo: A recent flare-up in a long-running dispute over this pair of rocky islets in the Sea of Japan has caused a frostiness to settle over Japan-South Korea relations. This year both countries have declared exclusive economic zones that include Tokdo, which is currently under South Korean control.

The issue also inspires nationalist sentiments in South Korea, where some see Japan's claim as latter-day colonialism.


Imea: Greece and Turkey nearly fought over this island earlier this year, before a US mediator and calm heads prevailed. Turkey is frustrated that the UN's Law of the Sea would allow Greece to claim almost the entire Aegean Sea and potentially curtail Turkish access to the Mediterranean.

But Imea is also a symbol of a bigger dispute, says international lawyer Van Dyke: ''Who should control the Aegean itself?''

Given the range of contentious issues dividing Greece and Turkey, ''any spark will light a fire,'' says Mr. Schofield.

Serpent Isle: Romania and Ukraine have maintained competing claims for this islet in the Black Sea at least since World War II. Schofield says title to the island will affect the sea boundary between the two countries and access to potential oil and gas deposits. Serpent Isle is now under Ukrainian control.


Abu Musa and the Tunbs: One reason that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 was to get better access to the Persian Gulf. Abu Musa and the Tunbs, now under Iranian control but claimed by the United Arab Emirates, are well situated to disrupt the passage of ships in the Gulf.

Iran's placement of anti-aircraft missiles on the islands has made many countries in the region nervous, placing Abu Musa high on experts' list of volatile islands.

Hanish Islands: Yemen and Eritrea's dispute over these islands at the foot of the Red Sea is a complex web of conspiracy theories and accusations, says Lawrence Tal, a lecturer in politics at Trinity College in Oxford, Britain.

Both countries want to develop the islands for tourism and their location gives them strategic value. Newly independent Eritrea and newly unified Yemen are ''nascent states'' whose governments may be tempted to generate nationalist sentiments over the islands, Mr. Tal says.


The Falklands: Britain and Argentina fought a bloody war over these islands in 1982, an indication of how dangerous island disputes can become. The two countries have recently concluded agreements on fishing and oil exploration, and the British garrison is much stronger than it was at the time of Argentina's attempt to take the islands.

For those reasons, says Schofield, further conflict is unlikely. But the Falklands, or the Malvinas as they are known in Argentina, are reminder of what can happens when small islands get caught wrapped in nationalism. ''When things go awry, and domestic politics takes over, the tail begins to wag the dog,'' says the East-West Center's Valencia.

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