x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Big ownership dispute over small islands

Why is it that nations regularly squabble over small blots on the landscape?

Why is it that nations regularly squabble over small blots on the landscape?

Take the cluster of small islands known to the Chinese as the Diaoyus and the Japanese as the Senkakus.

Uninhabited, largely forgotten specks of land that rise majestically out of the East China Sea, the islands provided the environment for some pretty strong political posturing between the two nations last summer - for a brief moment it looked as if the pair would tumble into a military conflict - and remains somewhere close to the top of the 2013 "to do" list for Xi Jinping, China's incoming president.

Elsewhere in Asia, Japan remains locked in dispute with South Korea over the Takeshima or Dokdo islands and with Russia over the Southern Kuril Islands. China, meanwhile, also seeks resolution over the sovereignty of the Spratly Islands - a claim disputed by, variously, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei - in the South China Sea.

Few will need reminding too, that the UAE continues to be involved in a decades-long diplomatic discussion (pursued through the appropriate UN channels) with Iran over Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunb, the cluster of islands that lie close to the so-called "choke point" in the Strait of Hormuz.

By comparison, the 180-year old potboiler between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands is much longer in the making, but is easier to unravel.

Last week, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the Argentine president, began to stoke the fires of this dispute once more, placing an advert in selected UK newspapers arguing that the British government should be "stripped" of the Falklands after grabbing the islands against the will of the people on January 3, 1833.

The Sun, the top-selling British newspaper - whose use of "Gotcha!" on its front page after the sinking of the Argentinian warship General Belgrano during the 1982 war between the two nations, is remembered as both a flawed and flawless piece of tabloid headline writing - issued a reply the next day.

The newspaper, which booked space in the Buenos Aires Herald to argue its case, said "hands off" (in its best tabloid English) in an open letter to de Kirchner and indulged in a brief history lesson: arguing that the islands were in British hands long before the state of Argentina was created and reminding her that her nation's 1982 invasion of the islands was unlawful.

While the world awaits the next salvo - and this is, mercifully, fairly low-level stuff, even if several Argentinian protesters took to the streets of Buenos Aires to burn the British flag in protest against The Sun - the islanders themselves have their chance to vote on whether they want to remain British or not in a March referendum.

For now though, there are several victors in this dispute: the Herald got an unexpected spike in sales (selling out on the day The Sun's advert ran), the British tabloid, meanwhile, garnered another front-page lead. Its coverage last Saturday featured some of the aforementioned flag-burners under a "Burn Us Aires" headline.

And what of the Argentinian president?

She too can see little downside to her spot of sabre-rattling. If last year's 30th anniversary of the 1982 war brought back some uncomfortable memories of an ignominious defeat, of ill-equipped conscripts cowering in the cold of the island's bleak terrain, then this year's anniversary allows Argentina to recast itself as the injured party in this lengthy dispute. Better still, there is a natural release valve in the process - namely, the impending referendum - when ballot boxes rather than bombs will settle the issue once and for all. De Kirchner also knows her continued pressing of the point is both popular domestically and will help shore up her nation's eventual claims to the islands' oil wealth.