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Monday, May 17, 2004

More on Islands 

For those of you eagerly anticipating an update on the "I Like the Island Life" series of stories, I have some good news.

First, The Head Heeb has an analysis of the Spratly Island stories discussed on the Bonassus here and here. THH explains the international legal implications:
In using tourism to shore up its title, the Vietnamese government is no doubt thinking of the recent ICJ ruling awarding the nearby islands of Ligitan and Sipadan to Malaysia. Both Malaysia and Indonesia claimed the islands and neither could prove clear title, so the court analyzed which government had made greater use of them and shown greater intent to assume sovereignty. Indonesia argued that the Indonesian Navy was "active in the area" and that the islands had been used by Indonesian fishermen, while Malaysia pointed to its maintenance of lighthouses, licensing of commercial activity and sponsored tourism:
Malaysia observes that the tourist trade, generated by this sport [of scuba diving], emerged from the time when it became popular, and that it had itself accepted the responsibilities of sovereignty to ensure the protection of the island's environment as well as to meet the basic needs of the visitors.
When the court compared the activities of the two countries in exploiting Ligitan and Sipadan, it found Malaysia's more consistent with an assumption of sovereignty. The Vietnamese are no doubt hoping that an airport and tourist trade - which also features scuba diving - will trump the other claimants' token presence.

The ICJ's ruling, however, also carried a warning for Vietnam - that exploitation of disputed territory for the specific purpose of enhancing a legal claim doesn't count as much as continuation of previous activities. Vietnam's conduct may also be in breach of a 2002 agreement in which the claimants agreed to "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes," which isn't likely to make a court sympathetic toward its claim. Still, international law precedents hold that title can be established "with very little in the way of the actual exercise of sovereign rights provided that the other State could not make out a superior claim," and the airport might carry the day in the event ASEAN mediation fails and the dispute goes to court.
THH goes on to note that the Spratlys are hardly indivisible, and suggests that territorial partition in conjunction with an oil revenue sharing plan might be a feasible resolution.

As a card-carrying political scientist, I'm inclined to believe that international law and legal institutions are unlikely to determine the Spratlys' fate on their own, particularly because a very large and powerful country (China) has interests at stake. If we do see a solution emerge from a multilateral institution, I'd guess it would be some kind of ad hoc panel put together to more closely reflect China's interests (and relative power) than the ICJ. On the other hand, THH is without question correct about the motivations for Vietnam's recent actions.

Still want more Island Life news? Stay tuned for (a lot) more on artificial islands and international relations here on the Bonassus. In the meantime, check out this article from THH on a radical budget-balancing measure suggested to the island nation of Nauru: selling itself.

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