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Senkaku/Diaoyu: Another Falklands

27 January 2013

Senkaku/Diaoyu: Another Falklands?

By Gwynne Dyer

Chinese survey vessels go into the waters around the disputed islands and Japanese patrol ships tail them much too closely. Twice last month Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft flew into the airspace around the Japanese-controlled islands and Tokyo scrambled F-15 fighters to meet them. On the second occasion, China then sent fighters too. Can these people be serious?

The rocky, uninhabited group of islets in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China, are worthless in themselves, and even the ocean and seabed resources around them could not justify a war. Yet both sides sound quite serious, and the media rhetoric about it in China has got downright bellicose.

Historical analogies are never exact, but they can sometimes be quite useful. What would be a good analogy for the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute? The dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the islands that the British call the Falklands and the Argentines call las Malvinas fits the case pretty well.

Worthless islands? Check, unless you think land for grazing sheep is worth a war. Rich fishing grounds? Check. Potential oil and gas resources under the seabed? Tick. Rival historical claims going back to the 19th century or “ancient times”? Check. A truly foolish war that killed lots of people? Yes, in the case of the Falklands/Malvinas, but not in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Not yet.

One other difference: the Falkland Islands have been inhabited by some thousands of English-speaking people of British descent for almost two centuries. Argentina’s claim relates to a short-lived colony in 1830-33 (which was preceded by somewhat longer-lived French and British colonies in the 1700s). Whereas nobody has ever lived on the Senkakus/Diaoyus.

Curiously, this does not simplify the quarrel. Neither China nor Japan has a particularly persuasive historical claim to the islands, and with no resident population they are wide open to a sudden, non-violent occupation by either country. That could trigger a real military confrontation between China and Japan, and drag in Japan’s ally, the United States.

It was to avert exactly that sort of stunt that the Japanese government bought three of the islands last September. The ultra-nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, announced that he would use public money to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner, and the Foreign Ministry suspected that he would then land people there to assert Japanese sovereignty more vigorously.

The Chinese would probably respond in kind, and then the fat would be in the fire. But the Japanese government’s thwarting of Ishihara’s plans did not mollify the Chinese. The commercial change of ownership did not strengthen or weaken either country’s claim of sovereignty, but Beijing saw it as a nefarious Japanese plot, and so the confrontation began to grow.

It has got to the point where Japanese business interests in China have been seriously damaged by boycotts and violent protests, and Japan’s defence budget, after ten years of decline, is to go up a bit this year. (China’s defence budget rises every year.) It’s foolish, but it’s getting beyond a joke.

Meanwhile, down in the South China Sea, a very similar confrontation has been simmering for years between China, which claims almost the entire sea for itself, and the five other countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan) that maintain overlapping claims over various parts of the sea.

Military manoeuvres are taking place, non-negotiable declarations of sovereignty are being made, and navies are being beefed up. Once again there are fishing rights at stake in the waters under dispute, and oil and gas reserves are believed to exist underneath them. The United States, because of its military alliance with the Philippines, is also potentially involved in any conflict in this region.

All this nonsense over fish and petrochemical resources that would probably not yield one-tenth of the wealth that would be expended in even a small local war. Moreover, the oil and gas resources, however big they may be, will remain unexploited so long as the seabed boundaries are in doubt. So the obvious thing to do is to divide the disputed territory evenly between the interested parties, and exploit the resources jointly.

This is what the Russians and the Norwegians did three years ago, after a decades-long dispute over the seabed between them in the Barents Sea that led to speculations about a war in the Arctic.

The Japanese and the Chinese could obviously do the same thing: no face lost, and everybody makes a profit. A similar deal between the countries around the South China Sea would be more complicated to negotiate, but would yield even bigger returns. So why don’t they just do it?

Maybe because there are islands involved. Nobody has ever gone to war over a slice of seabed, but actual islands, sticking up out of the water, fall into the category of “sacred national territory, handed down from our forefathers,” over which large quantities of blood can and must be shed.

China will not just invade the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, because it is not run by a drunken and murderous military dictator (as Argentina was when it invaded the Falklands in 1982). But could everybody stumble into a war over this stupid confrontation? Yes, they could.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11 (“Meanwhile…region”) and the second sentence of paragraph 14 (“A similar…returns”).



The Falklands and All That

11 April 2012

The Falklands and All That

By Gwynne Dyer

International human rights campaigner and occasional actor Sean Penn, whose well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize continues to be delayed for mysterious reasons, was the first famous foreigner to lend his support to the cause. “The world today is not going to tolerate any ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology,” he told Cristina Kirchner, the president of Argentina. He was speaking, of course, of the Falkland Islands.

This was music to the ears of Kirchner, who has marked the 30th anniversary of the Argentine invasion and British recapture of the islands with a high-profile nationalist campaign to “recover” the Falklands (or rather Las Malvinas, as Argentines call them). Penn then went home to California, but it wasn’t long before Fidel Castro weighed in too. Unfortunately, Castro hadn’t read the script.

Kirchner’s chief talking point was an accusation that Britain was “militarising” the South Atlantic by sending an “ultra-modern destroyer” to patrol the waters around the islands. (It replaces an obsolete, leaky destroyer, we must suppose.) But Castro unhelpfully mocked the British, claiming that “the English only have one little boat left. All the English can do is send over a destroyer, they can’t even send an aircraft carrier.”

One could make a meal of this silly quarrel – “The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb,” as Argentine poet and essayist Jorge Luis Borges once said – but it wouldn’t be a very nourishing meal. A more useful approach would be to consider why it is so fundamentally silly.

It’s not that the history of the rival claims is silly (although it is: first French settlers in 1764, then British in 1765, then the French hand their share over to the Spanish in 1767, followed by half a dozen more changes of ownership or control until the islands finally fall under permanent British rule in 1833). Nor is it that the islands are now worth considerably more than a comb (though they are, with seabed oil and rich fisheries surrounding them).

It’s just that you are no longer allowed to shift control of territories from one country to another by force. That was the way the world was run for thousands of years, but after the Second World War the nations of the world changed the rule and in effect froze all the borders where they were at that moment. They did that not because it was just, but because most wars were over territory, and wars had got too big and destructive to fight any more.

Argentina can claim that the brief presence of Argentine colonists in the island at one point before 1833 gives it an eternal right to the islands, and Britain can insist that the wishes of the present, English-speaking residents, who want to remain British, must be respected, but neither is really relevant. The Falklands will remain British because we now define any attempt to change borders by force as “aggression”.

This is the point at which the frantic protests about British “colonialism” usually erupt. They come from Argentina, where the European settlers dispossessed the aboriginal inhabitants. They come from Sean Penn, whose house sits on land that was part of Mexico until the United States conquered it in 1846. They come from everybody who want to draw a line under history just after the situation that favours their interests came to pass.

But the line was actually drawn in 1945, and it has proved remarkably robust. When new African countries got their independence, they got it within the existing borders, even though those were originally drawn by the imperial powers with little heed to ethnic realities. When the old Soviet Union fell apart, all fifteen successor states accepted the administrative divisions of that empire as their new national borders.

And whenever somebody who hadn’t got the message tried to change their borders by force, pleading historical justice, ethnic similarity, or geographical tidiness, they were firmly rebuffed by almost everybody else. Indonesia seized and annexed East Timor in 1975, but eventually had to give it its freedom. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, but was driven out by an international army after only a few months.

And Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982. It was driven out by a British force, not an international one, but the United Kingdom would never have fought such a difficult war over islands then seen as almost valueless if it had not had international law on its side.

Argentina’s action was privately seen as inexcusable by almost every other government, even if its Latin American neighbours did not say so in public. The generals who ordered the invasion were ignorant men who didn’t understand that the world had changed, and they lost power in Argentina as a result of the war. More importantly, the law was upheld.

And that is why Alsace-Lorraine, after changing hands a dozen times in its history, will remain French. California, similarly, will remain American however much the Mexicans dislike it. As for Kashmir and the West Bank – but that’s a subject for another day.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“Argentina…aggression”; and “Argentina’s…upheld”


The Future of Food Riots

9 January 2011

The Future of Food Riots

By Gwynne Dyer

    If all the food in the world were shared out evenly, there would be enough to
go around. That has been true for centuries now: if food was scarce, the problem was that it wasn’t in the right place, but there was no global shortage. However, that will not be true much longer.

    The food riots began in Algeria more than a week ago, and they are going to
spread. During the last global food shortage, in 2008, there was serious rioting in Mexico, Indonesia, and Egypt. We may expect to see that again this time, only bigger and more widespread.

    Most people in these countries live in a cash economy, and a large proportion live in cities. They buy their food, they don’t grow it. That makes them very vulnerable, because they have to eat almost as much as people in rich countries do, but their incomes are much lower.

    The poor, urban multitudes in these countries (including China and India) spend up to half of their entire income on food, compared to only about ten percent in the rich countries. When food prices soar, these people quickly find that they simply lack the money to go on feeding themselves and their children properly – and food prices now are at an all-time high.

   “We are entering a danger territory,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the Food and Agriculture Organisation, on 5 January. The price of a basket of cereals, oils, dairy, meat and sugar that reflects global consumption patterns has risen steadily for six months, and has just broken through the previous record, set during the last food panic in June, 2008.

    “There is still room for prices to go up much higher,” Abbassian added, “if for example the dry conditions in Argentina become a drought, and if we start having problems with winter kill in the northern hemisphere for the wheat crops.” After the loss of at least a third of the Russian and Ukrainina grain crop in last summer’s heat wave and the devastating floods in Australia and Pakistan, there’s no margin for error left .

   It was Russia and India banning grain exports in order to keep domestic prices down that set the food prices on the international market soaring. Most countries cannot insulate themselves from this global price rise, because they depend on imports for a lot of domestic consumption. But that means that a lot of their population cannot buy enough food for their families, so they go hungry. Then they get angry, and the riots start.

   Is this food emergency a result of global warming? Maybe, but all these droughts, heat waves and floods could also just be a run of really bad luck. What is nearly certain is that the warming will continue, and that in the future there will be many more weather disasters due to climate change. Food production is going to take a big hit.

   Global food prices are already spiking whenever there are a few local crop failures, because the supply barely meets demand even now. As the big emerging economies grow, Chinese and Indian and Indonesian citizens eat more meat, which places a great strain on grain supplies. Moreover, world population is now passing through seven billion, on its way to nine billion by 2050. We will need a lot more food than we used to.

   Some short-term fixes are possible. If the US government ended the subsidies for growing maize (corn) for “bio-fuels”, it would return about a quarter of US crop land to food production. If people ate a little less meat, if more African land was brought into production, if more food was eaten and less was thrown away, then maybe we could buy ourselves another fifteen or twenty years before demand really outstripped supply.

    On the other hand, about a third of all the irrigated land in the world depends on pumping groundwater up from aquifers that are rapidly depleting. When the flow of irrigation water stops, the yield of that highly productive land will drop hugely. Desertification is spreading in many regions, and a large amount of good agricultural land is simply being paved over each year. We have a serious problem here.

   Climate change is going to make the situation immeasurably worse. The modest warming that we have experience so far may not be the main cause of the floods, droughts and violent storms that have hurt this year’s crops, but the rise in temperature will continue because we cannot find the political will to stop the greenhouse-gas emissions.

    The rule of thumb is that we lose about 10 percent of world food production for every rise of one degree C in average global temperature. So the shortages will grow and the price of food will rise inexorably over the years. The riots will return again and again.

    In some places the rioting will turn into revolution. In others, the rioters will become refugees and push up against the borders of countries that don’t want to let them in. Or maybe we can get the warming under control before it does too much damage. Hold your breath, squeeze your eyes tight shut, and wish for a miracle.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Some…here”)

One degree C is 1.8 degrees F.

The Falkland Islands: Not Again, Surely?

18 February 2010

The Falkland Islands: Not Again, Surely?

By Gwynne Dyer

Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s finest writer, dismissed the Falklands War of 1982 as “two bald men fighting over a comb,” but it killed almost a thousand British and Argentine soldiers, sailors and airmen anyway. So what would happen if the bald men started fighting over something really valuable, like oil?

Any day now a deep-sea drilling rig will arrive from Scotland and start searching for oil and gas in the North Falkland basin, about 150 km. (100 miles) north of the islands. Optimistic predictions suggest that there are up to 60 billion barrels of oil to be found around the Falklands. There might also be not very much at all — but Argentina has begun issuing warnings and veiled threats again.

This may only be bluster, but Argentina has claimed the islands, which it calls the Islas Malvinas, for almost two centuries. The local population are all English-speakers, mainly of British descent, and back in 1982 the islands’ economy was based almost entirely on sheep. The Falklands had no value – but Argentina invaded anyway, because the military regime in Buenos Aires needed a boost in popularity and it looked like an easy win.

It should have been an easy victory for the military junta, because the islands are only 500 km. (300 miles) from Argentina and they are 13,000 km. (8,000 miles) from Britain. Moreover, Britain had substantially cut its military presence in the region, which suggested to the Argentine generals that it wasn’t really committed to the islands’ defence.

The British Foreign Office wasn’t (and the foreign secretary of the time had to resign because of his neglect), but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher certainly was. She sent a British task force to take the islands back, fought a two-month war at the end of an impossibly long supply line, and won. Which seemed, for a time, to have settled matters.

Argentina never did abandon its claim, and it never will. It has been drummed into many generations of Argentine schoolchildren that “The Malvinas are Argentina’s”, and the claim has become one of the pillars of Argentine nationalism. But defeat in the Falklands led to the collapse of the military regime, and subsequent democratic governments in Buenos Aires re-opened trade and travel ties with the islands.

Meanwhile, the previously impoverished islanders grew prosperous by selling licenses to exploit the rich fishing resources in the islands’ territorial waters. Oil drilling got underway in 1998, but stopped again when the world oil price dropped below $10 per barrel. (Seabed oil is expensive oil.) The population grew by 50 percent, to the present total of 3,000. And all seemed well.

Things started to look worrisome again in 2007, when Argentina’s then-president, Nestor Kirchner, unilaterally cancelled an agreement with the United Kingdom to share the exploitation of offshore resources including possible oil reserves. It would have prevented the current dispute from arising, but the political value of the Malvinas claim in Argentina is greater than the potential economic value of oil from the seas around the Falklands.

In response to the approach of the drilling rig last week, President Cristina Kirchner (the husband-and-wife team take turns in the presidency) decreed that all vessels travelling between Argentina and the Falklands, or those wanting to cross Argentine territorial waters en route to the islands, must seek prior permission. Unfortunately, nobody knows exactly what that means.

Since Buenos Aires insists that all the seas around the Falklands belong to Argentina, it could amount to a blockade of the Falklands. Her chef de cabinet, Anibal Fernandez, said the decree sought to achieve “not only a defence of Argentine sovereignty but also of all the resources” in the area – and deputy foreign minister Victorio Taccetti said his country would take “adequate measures” to stop oil exploration.

On the other hand, Britain now keeps a thousand troops plus strike aircraft and warships in the once defenceless Falkland Islands: an Argentine attack on the drilling platform would not be easy, and another invasion is almost impossible. Nevertheless, William Hague, former leader of the Conservative Party, who is likely to be the British foreign secretary after the May election, is urging the government to reinforce the Falklands now.

“One of the things that went wrong in the 1980s is that the Argentines thought we weren’t really committed to the Falkland Islands,” warned Hague. “So, we mustn’t make that mistake again. Our commitment should be very clear.”

Maybe this is all merely a pantomime, but it’s not just a quarrel about a comb. It’s not really about potential oil resources, either. If it were, Nestor Kirchner would never have cancelled the Argentina-UK agreement on sharing the offshore resources. It’s about holding power in Buenos Aires.

That was what really motivated the junta’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982. There is an election due in Argentina next year, and one of the Kirchners is likely to run again. Another lost war would not be politically helpful, but a crisis could be very useful. We may be hearing more from the South Atlantic.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Argentina…islands”; and “One…clear”)