In recent months two island chains have been subject to increasing global scrutiny. Both the Falkland and Senkaku islands are seemingly insignificant; little more than rocks in a vast expanse of sea. A cursory glance would suggest they would be of little interest to anyone – but recent events have proved otherwise.
The islands have made the headlines lately because of disputes over their sovereignty. The Falklands, in the South Atlantic, are controlled by the U.K. but claimed by Argentina (who call them Las Malvinas), while the Senkakus, in the East China Sea, are controlled by Japan but claimed by China (who call them the Diaoyus). The islands, despite being on opposite sides of the globe, share a number of key characteristics aside from their remoteness. One similarity is the way in which China and Argentina both portray themselves as victims of nineteenth century colonial powers (Japan and the U.K.) that took by force islands they claim they have indisputable claims too. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the islands both sit on potentially large, unexploited oil reserves. Their most apparent difference is the fact that, while the Senkakus are completely uninhabited, the Falklands have a population of nearly 3,000 individuals who nearly all view themselves as British.
The Falklanders are the main stumbling block to negotiations between the U.K. and Argentina over the islands sovereignty. The U.K. refuses to discuss the issue of sovereignty without consulting the islanders while Argentina refuses to recognise them as having any right to a say in the matter. Despite this, the Argentinian foreign minister recently claimed that Argentina would control the Falklands within “20 years” an opinion described as a “fantasy” by Britain’s foreign secretary.
The dispute over the Senkakus has provoked more than strong words with Japan accusing the Chinese of locking one of their battleships’ targeting radar onto a Japanese ship near the Senkakus. China has denied the allegations but continues to send battleships to patrol the sea around the islands which Japan claims are its territorial waters.
In the disputes over both the Falklands and the Senkakus it appears that tensions are on an upward trajectory though there are reasons to be hopeful that calm heads will prevail in both cases. The outbreak of conflict is least likely in the case of the Falklands. Since the Argentinians invaded the Falklands in 1982 neither nation has any appetite to come to blows over the islands. The Argentinian military has been left to decay since the conflict and with ever mounting cuts to the military in Britain both have little capacity, as well as interest, in fighting over the islands. This does not, however, mean that the islands will not continue to mar relationship between the two countries for the foreseeable future.
The case for optimism over the fate of the Senkakus is somewhat weaker. Both Beijing and Tokyo have recently experienced leadership changes with the new regime in each nation being characterised by bellicose attitudes and bombastic rhetoric as they seek to cement their position and court public opinion. With both nations continuing to patrol battleships around the Senkaku it seems that both are willing to push the issue right to the edge of conflict, if not over the brink.
However, even here there are reasons to be optimistic. China and Japan are Asia’s largest economies and, if cool heads prevail, will realise they have more to gain through cooperation than conflict. Japan, whose economy is stalling, has a particularly large interest in maintaining relations with its largest trading partner. While, in the case of China it has little interest in provoking the U.S. who is Japan’s most powerful ally.
There is a good argument, therefore, to hope that the doves will triumph over the hawks in the cases of both the Falklands and the Senkakus although it is likely that the two island chains will continue to occupy more than their fair share of headlines in the coming months.