By James M. Perry
Why do politicians, even statesmen, become so obsessed with remote little islands?
The current obsession, for China, Japan, and Taiwan, is the Senkaku Islands, rocky and uninhabited, off mainland China and not so far from Taiwan. Back in 1960, it was "Quemoy and Matsu" (the Matsu Islands, all 16 of them actually), claimed by both China and Taiwan. In 1982, it was the Falklands, with two populated islands and 776 others. Britain and Argentina actually went to war over them.
Quemoy and Matsu were hotly debated by presidential candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, Kennedy talking the perfectly reasonable position that the United States shouldn't go to war over such insignificant territory. Nixon argued that the islands were in what he called an "area of freedom" and should be defended at all costs to impede the advance of communism. The islands are peaceful now, and the 10,000 islanders take joy in the arrival of tourists. Bird watchers were delighted when four pairs of the Chinese Crested Tern, supposedly extinct, were spotted a few years ago. The weather is nice, the scenery is stunning, and visitors can travel around by boat, bus, and taxi, and there are two airports.
The weather in the Falklands, just off Argentina's Patagonian coast, isn't so nice, but almost 3,000 people live there, tending their sheep, most of them descended from early British settlers. Argentina, led by an unpopular regime hoping to arouse patriotic support at home, invaded the Falklands on April 2, 1982, easily overcoming weak resistance and presuming the British were too far away to do anything about it. They failed to take into account Britain's prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who immediately resolved to send an armada to retake the islands. The war went on for more than two months. with several British ships being sunk by Exocet missiles. It was a close-run thing, and Britain won with the help of the United States, France, and Chile.
Both sides have agreed to "normalize" relations, but Britain, fearful of another invasion, maintains an RAF base and a significant garrison in the islands.
Britain says it won't surrender the Falklands as long as the residents want to remain a British territory. A recent poll showed almost 99 per cent of the islanders liked things just the way they were.
The bizarre dispute over ownership of the Senkaku Islands became an international incident when China declared that the islands and the waters around them were an "Air Defense Identification Zone" that the Chinese said was necessary to "guard against potential air threats." Japanese officials were outraged and the United States sent two B-52 bombers through the zone to demonstrate what it thought (civilian aircraft, though, were urged to report their whereabouts to Chinese authorities).
The only thing going for the islands seems to be the existence there of the Senkaku Mole and the Okinawa-kuro-oo-ari ant. Wild goats reportedly have decimated the mole population, and the moles are now listed as an endangered species. The ant appears to be thriving.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, is contributing regular observations for post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.