Showing posts with label 21st century. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 21st century. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Bir Tawil Trapezoid--the Geographic, the Adorable, and the Imperialistic

On the border between Egypt and Sudan there are two small areas of land that remain in dispute--the Hala'ib Triangle, and the Bir Tawil Trapezoid. Hala'ib borders the Red Sea, and both countries have been laying claim to it since the 1950s. The Bir Tawil Trapezoid, on the other hand, is a mostly desolate wasteland, and both countries, well...they don't not claim it, but they certainly don't claim it either.

Image result for Bir Tawil
A scenic stretch of Bir Tawil
Like many of the geographic struggles in Africa, this one dates back to colonial times when both Egypt and Sudan were a part of the British Empire. In 1899, while separating the areas into two distinct administrative districts the border between Sudan and Egypt was drawn at the 22nd parallel. Unfortunately, this border seperated two nomadic tribal groups--the Ababda and the Bisharin--from large sections of their traditional homelands. The Ababda, who's traditional grazing ground includes Bir Tawil, were deemed to have more in common culturally with the Egyptians, and the Bisharin, who sometimes occupy Hala'ib, were deemed to be more Sudanese. Consequently, in 1902 the border was redrawn, and Bir Tawil was incorporated into Egypt, while Hala'ib went to the Sudanese.

Flash forward to 1956, and Sudan has finally kicked their colonial overlords to the curb. Egypt, who had show the English the door in 1922, stood by the 1899 border--straight along the 22nd parallel. This hadn't been a point of friction until Sudan gained independence, and adopted the 1902 border--allotting Bir Tawil to Egypt, and granting themselves Hala'ib.

Related image
Bir Tawil is circled in red.
What follows has been a relatively bloodless game of North African chicken. While neither country would say no to Bir Tawil, claiming Bir Tawil would mean giving up any claim to Hala'ib, which is a much more attractive plot of land. Hala'ib not only has access to the Red Sea, but it also is rich in resources, with substantial manganese deposits. Egypt was eager to start exporting manganese, and it was the Sudanese government allowing a Canadian oil company to do exploration in the triangle that kicked this whole dispute off.

There have been no armed conflicts over the triangle, though Egyptian troops were sent into the region in 1958 after Sudan attempted to hold elections, and remain there to this day. The Sudanese withdrew their troops in 2000, and the area has been under de facto Egyptian control ever since.

All of this leaves Bir Tawil mostly unadministered. It's easy to see why neither government wants to claim the trapezoid--there's little but rocks and desert. As mentioned, the Ababda graze their animals there part of the year, but there are no permanent residents. Bir Tawil has been largely regarded as a no man's land since the 1960s.

There are, however, several individuals who have claimed Bir Tawil, and attempted to create their own sovereign nation. Most famously was Jeremiah Heaton, an American farmer who wanted to make his daughter's dream of becoming a princess a reality. In 2014 he made the treacherous journey through the Egyptian desert to Bir Tawil, and planted a homemade flag in the grounded. He renamed the area North Sudan, and declared himself king, and his daughter a princess.

Related image
Heaton, his daughter, Emily, and their flag.
Once he returned home to Virginia he didn't relinquish his claims. He set about trying to get his territory recognized officially as a country, with the goal of establishing experimental agricultural centers that would research the most effective farming methods for the food unstable region. However, as Sealand could attest, gaining recognition for a new country is no easy feat, no matter how noble the cause.

Not only is Heaton battling with Egypt and Sudan over the area, he's also fighting against an American journalist, an Indian, two Russians, and a whole host of other people who saw Bir Tawil on a map, and decided to make their own country. Every few years another claimant pops up, but none of the claimants actually live in the area.

Which brings us to the people who actually inhabit Bir Tawil--the Ababda people. The Ababda have inhabited southern Egypt, northern Sudan, and parts of Ethiopia since at least Ptolemaic times, possibly earlier. Though they don't live in Bir Tawil year round, the area is an important part of their yearly migration. Amusing and heartwarming as it might be for random foreigners to claim this no man's land, it must be conceded that the trapezoid isn't a no-man's-land, at least not entirely. This brings into the contentious age old question about land ownership between nomadic and settled societies, and how much land nomadic cultures can lay claim to.

However, as far as international land disputes go, Bir Tawil is undoubtedly the most light hearted. No blood has been spilled over the region, there's not even a real occupying force. Sure, there's some random flags scattered over the 2,060 square kilometers in the trapezoid, but that's an eyesore that can be dealt with. Besides, it made one seven year old girl a very happy princess.

More on Similar Topics





Sources
Virginia Man's Claim on African Land is Unlikely to Pass Test
Welcome to the Land No Country Wants
Bir Tawil
A History of Bir Tawil
Bir Tawil: The Land No Country Wants
The Halayeb Triangle

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Dangerous Ground-The Spratly Islands

Located between Vietnam and the Philippines, the Spratly Islands have no native population, yet the area is one of the most disputed regions in the world, with six countries claiming all or part of the archipelago. Largely barren, the islands, many of which are not above water all of the time, cannot sustain human life. Yet, the rich untapped potential of oil and natural gas reserves under the reefs, and their strategic maritime position has made the Spratly Island a point of contention in East Asia since the 1950s.

Image result for spratly islands
Aerial view of an atoll in the archipelago.
The first verified 'discovery' of the Spratly Islands was in 1843 when British whaling captain Richard Spratly spotted a large island. He named it after himself, as one does, and the name was eventually applied to the entire island group. Though this was the era of the British Empire, and the British were well known for claiming any piece of land that stood still, Spratly sailed on, and the English did not attempt to claim the islands. The islands were mostly left alone until the Japanese built an army base on the largest island during WWII.

The Spratly Islands are comprised of various bits of land that sometimes are, and sometimes aren't above water. There are more than 100 of these reefs, shoals, atolls, and islets, with Spratly Island itself being the largest. Though there is no indigenous population, approximately 45 of the islands are occupied by military presence from one of the six countries that lay claim to the area.

While there is sparse vegetation and very little wildlife, there is a huge reserve of untapped natural gas and oil under the reefs. These resources are very useful to the rapidly developing nations that claim the area, especially to China, who uses about 12% of the world's oil--second only to the United States in world usage.

In addition to gas and oil, the Spratly Islands are also rich in fish and other sea life--a major component of the southeast Asian diet. Being able to fish in those waters is very important to the livelihood of the people closest to the area, and having control of those waters lends an enormous economic advantage.

However, fish rights aren't the only thing that makes the Spratly Islands strategic. Their location in the South China sea not only makes them an excellent military outpost to launch attacks in Southeast Asia, but it also lends control of one of the largest shipping routes in the world. Any cargo boat that sails to Asia has to go through the South China Sea, and whoever controls the Spratly Islands exerts significant influence over trade in the region.

Image result for spratly islands
Map of the islands and the claims exerted over them.
The Spratlys are claimed by six nations--China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. While the Spratlys are closest to Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Taiwan retains the longest military presence, and China is the most militant about populating the area, going as far as to build artificial islands to station military forces on.

Delving into the basis of territorial claims on the Spratlys, many countries share similar justifications for why the Spratlys should belong to them. The claims separate into about three camps, with all of them boiling down to the same reasoning that five year olds use to fight over toys. These claims are: I had it first, I have it now, and But it's close to me.

  • I had it first.
China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all use this argument. All three countries have produced documents that 'prove' the existence of Chinese¹ and Vietnamese people living on the Spratlys hundreds of years ago. The Chinese produced records stating that Han people had settled the area in the 1600s, and the Vietnamese produced records showing that the Spratlys had been a part of several ancient Vietnamese kingdoms. However, this historical evidence is shaky at best, and due to a lack of continuous occupation of the region, an important factor in claiming sovereignty over an area, has not been accepted as grounds for a valid claim by the United Nations.
  • I have it now.
While nowhere near one of the greatest military conflicts in the late twentieth century, armed conflict, and taking island features by force has been one way of securing possession of the archipelago. There have been armed skirmishes between China and Vietnam in 1974 and 1988, and between China and the Philippines in 2012. Following, and in between these skirmishes the Chinese government has established airfields and military bases on various island features. They have also gone as far as to include the Spratlys on their official maps, and give them an official place in the Hainan Province.

Taiwan has had a physical occupying force in the islands since the end of WWII, with only a brief interruption. They occupy Itu Abu, the largest island in the archipelago, and have been administering it peacefully for decades.

Malaysia, likewise, has physical garrisons on the islands, and claims twelve islands that are located on its continental shelf. Malaysia, however, is the newest claimant to the game, not taking possession of any of the islands until the 1980s.

All of these countries are operating under the idea that continuous occupation=ownership. It's the same idea that led Canada to abandon 92 in the High Arctic. It is, by far, a much stronger claim than historical precedence or international law, given that possession is 9/10ths of the law.
  • But it's close to me.
Part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that a nation may claim up to 200 nautical miles away from their land as an exclusive economic zone. This is the law upon which Brunei hangs its claim, and a law that Malaysia and the Philippines both utilize. It is worth noting that in all three of these cases the country in question isn't claiming the entire archipelago, just a few islands, or, in the case of Brunei, a single reef. 
Image result for spratly islands
A Chinese Military Base 

All of these countries make strong claims to certain features of the Spratly Islands, and peace would certainly be conceivable if China, Taiwan, and Vietnam weren't attempting to claim the entire archipelago. As it stands, the Spratly Islands is the epicenter of a cold and sporadic conflict. None of the claimant countries make an active effort to maintain the claims on the region, and Malaysian and Filipino fishermen make use of the waters surrounding the archipelago. It seems unlikely that any resolution between the six countries will be reached soon, and so the Spratly Islands remain a volatile, and dangerous region.



¹The Taiwanese have been lumped in with the Chinese here, as Taiwan was administratively a part of mainland China until 1949. The Taiwanese historical claims are the same as the Chinese historical claims.

More on Similar Topics





Sources
The Spratly Islands Dispute: International Law, Conflicting Claims, and Alternative Frameworks
For Dispute Resolution by Robin Gonzalez
Why is the South China Sea Contentious?
The South China Sea: the Spratly Islands Disputes
Making Sense of the South China Sea Dispute
Spratly Islands
Spratly Islands: Reefs, Shoals, Atolls, and Islets

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Milk War

The Russian-Belarusian 'Milk War' of 2009 lasted a little over two weeks, and during those two weeks no shots were fired. One of the pettiest wars of all time, the only victims were Belarusian wallets and Russian dairy consumers.

Image result for belarus map
Belarus and Russia are neighbors, and have traditionally
had good diplomatic relations.
This war started when Russia banned all dairy imports from Belarus, supposedly because Belarusian dairy didn't meet Russian health standards, but more likely because Belarus wasn't doing what Russia told it to. Russia has a history of banning imports from countries that make it made, and they were pretty upset with Belarus for a few reasons.

  1. Belarus refused to recognize the breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia had assisted South Ossetia and Abkhazia in declaring independence from the country of Georgia. The only other country than Russia to have recognized those countries was the Central American country of Nicaragua. Russia wanted some support, but Belarus just wasn't there for them.
  2. Russia depends on a Belarus pipeline to pipe its oil to the rest of Europe. Russia tried to buy this pipeline from Belarus, but Belarus refused to sell.
  3. Belarus had become decided more pro European, releasing political prisoners, and trying to make good with the rest of Europe. This angered Russia, who isn't very friendly with Europe.
Image result for belarus vs russia
Russian and Belarusian military marching together
on parade in 2011, two years after the end of the milk war
Belarus responded in a spectacularly mature fashion by imposing stricter border checkpoints on the Russia-Belarus border, and by refusing to attend the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a confederation of former Soviet states. The meeting had been to solidify a confederation wide military union. Belarus, formerly one of Russia's biggest supporters, not being present really infuriated the Russian government.

You can essentially envisage the Milk War as an argument between two particularly passive-aggressive teenage girls. Belarus won't give Russia what it wants, so Russia won't let Belarus bring its stuff over to Russia's house. This upsets Belarus, who decides that Russia can't come over to their house either. There had been a party planned for Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and a whole bunch of other people, but Belarus was still pissed off at Russia, so Belarus decided not to show up, which made Russia mad. A couple weeks later, they realize they need each other, and talk it out.
Today, dairy products pass freely through Belarus and Russia. Belarus still doesn't recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and continue to make pro-European overtures. Russia isn't very happy about this, but for the sake of regional security, they bite their tongues.

More on Similar Topics





Sources