Our political correspondent (Monty Skew) writes
Curious isn’t it, to see America rebuking China for developing facilities on islands in the South China Seas. The more usual charge levelled against other countries is that their policies are restraining development, or, to put it another way, failing to make it easy for foreign companies to establish branches in those countries and set about extracting pleasing returns from the local populations. But that is not the most piquant aspect of the matter. For China, despite long-standing though vague claims to most of the islands, has not moved in on any where other nation states have already been active, and that is an interesting contrast with other cases where island-grabbing has been alleged by the disrespectful. For example, in 1973 the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean was grabbed from those who lived there, and the entire population was expelled much against their will. Of course, it has to be admitted that the forced emigration was done with the consent of the governing power. However, the governing power was the United Kingdom, not the population living on the islands, though why the British undertook this relatively merciful measure (after all, other powers disposing of unwanted populations have not infrequently simply massacred them) is puzzling, since they made no use of the islands themselves but provided their use to America who established a large base on Diego Garcia, which is still there; those who survive of the dispossessed population still actively want to return to their home but cannot. (You see, it is not only in the Middle East that populations driven out have this hankering to return to where their ancestors lived for centuries. Perhaps in this present case a British prime minister might take the initiative again, this time suggesting a homeland for the Chagos islanders in some other part of the world such as eastern Africa; or indeed in Melanesia, since the Australian government seems to have had some success, by their own standards, with propelling people discovered on the high seas onto Nauru without gaining their consent, and despite the conditions for them in Nauru being so lamentable that journalists are barred.)
As it happens Chagos is not the only instance where island issues can be a bit tricky. In 1983 America was also involved, in fact the actual invading power, which took over control of the small island of Grenada, on the grounds that its airport was a threat to the security of the United States. Others suggest that the aim of the invasion was simply to bring the policies of the island into line with the democratic views of Washington. By co-incidence the governing power, standing in theory over the local government was, there too, the United Kingdom, in fact standing at such a distance that it only learned about the invasion from the American media. By a remarkable feat of prescience the British administrator was able to draft an appeal for foreign intervention before the event although he apparently only realised that he had done so some time after the invasion had begun. In this case, there was no attempt to clear the island of its population, who numbered after all some 90,000, and only a few dozen local inhabitants became insurgents or collateral damage through taking part in the resistance to the invasion (though the some of the latter were, perhaps surprisingly, in a hospital). World reaction was very unfavourable although the US successfully vetoed a critical motion in the Security Council.
One might have hoped the sensible conclusion would be ‘leave foreign islands alone unless they constitute a serious and imminent danger’ (such as might hazard the life of a western prime minister within 45 minutes). Now in this context it should be mentioned that a limit of 12 miles is internationally recognised as the standard extent from the coast of territorial waters; the coast has to be land known to be claimed by a continuing sovereign power (and in case of dispute this will be generally settled, short of war, by demonstration of occupation and control). The coast cannot be an uninhabited reef or rock to which no claim has been made.
The Chinese have vague but long-standing claims to many of the uninhabited islands in what is generally known as the South China sea, as have several other states in the region, and the Philippines for instance have installed small numbers of settlers in moderately well paid discomfort on remote islands to give weight to their claims. Washington knows that there are claims from all these sources and recognises that fact by stating that no overt support is extended to any particular claim. Yet it appears that the US plans to ostentatiously and imminently send armed forces through ‘international waters’ deliberately passing within 12 miles of islands which were not ‘built’ but only extended, by China, (and the validity of extending land area by reclamation from the sea is understood and accepted from Amsterdam to Singapore) and which were claimed and are occupied by China. This obviously couldn’t just be a case of trying to show which fellow has the biggest muscles. But whatever could the motive be?
There is a way we might be able to find out. Let’s get the UN to ‘defuse the issue’ by asking America to put in claims of her own to some of these islets since she is so interested in the region, and to send biologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, as well as any of her more unconventional citizens who might be persuaded or actually wish to go, to occupy them as a local population (probably with a great many more modern conveniences than the Philippine settlers on their far-flung settlements.) Someone could suggest pouring enough concrete to make an airstrip to allow liberty flights to Manila, or perhaps Angel City. The response to that request should clarify matters greatly.
Karela Hangshaw our geophysical expert (and flower arranger)
Simple Simon in almost every day recently, sometimes with that beefy adopted mother of his. A bit of a nuisance, but I haven’t the heart to ask him to leave when he comes on his own. I can’t say that he means well, because meaning is an activity he doesn’t handle in the same way as most other people – neitherwise, that is, re what you say to him, and what he utters himself. I don’t at all say he’s stupid; he just tends to have differently shaped thoughts from those of other people. For instance this morning he was badgering me to set up an article about ‘Sweden’s poor moose pit farmers’. Got quite excited. When I’d deciphered his verbal and manual gesticulations it seemed these fellows are up against a group of wealthy hunters and have only some mathematical theory to defend themselves, and at first I was sympathetic. Few groups of wealthy hunters are known for their help for the poor and needy – more interested in showing off their latest offensively high-powered equipment, though I do have a certain respect for those who go out into the forests at night armed only with a knife or a stout stick and look for bears willing to argue with them. As for Simon’s bunch it turned out they were figments of his misunderstanding; he’d read a headline in the Gaurdian online last week which ran ‘Sweden’s multiplying moose pit farmers against powerful hunting lobby’.