Island fever

The Chinese are at it. The Japanese are at it. The Brits and the Argentines are at it – all squabbling over small islands. There is even speculation that the US and Canada will revive their long-running dispute over little Machias Seal Island.

When large states are feeling small, it seems, small islands loom large. This is true not just of tiny, uninhabited outcrops. Independent and semi-independent islands are in the limelight too.

One reason for this is clear. Entitled to many of the same rights as large states, but without the same responsibilities, these islands pose an outrageous challenge to the international order and need to be brought back under control.

It is not just their tax practices, although this is the issue that currently defines the EU’s agenda. By selling passports to anyone passing, islands help criminals change identities and travel the globe undetected. And by conferring diplomatic recognition upon renegade countries, islands endanger global security.

There is a second reason too: entitled to many of the same rights as larger states, but without the same responsibilities, small islands are an outrageous challenge to the international order, and are therefore extremely useful allies to big countries.

Thanks to the competition caused by their tax regimes, small islands can be helpful to large countries wishing to impose fiscal discipline upon their partners or just hoping to excuse their own tax practices. And by handing out passports to all-comers, islands can ‘liberate’ the business elites and political opposition of repressive regimes – saving big states the need to intervene.

Small islands are even credited with a diplomatic daring which larger countries cannot afford to practice. Fearful of encouraging secessionist tendencies at home or of antagonising their international partners, large states are often too nervous to recognise breakaway countries. Small islands go where large states fear to tread.

This ambiguous status in an international system made for big players gives islands a significance quite disproportionate to their size. Take for instance Nauru (population: 9,000; size: 21 square kilometres; distinguishing features: looks from above suspiciously like a treasure island).

For years, China and Taiwan were locked in competition for Nauru’s diplomatic loyalty, with Nauru reportedly allowing itself to be bought first by one side then the other. Indeed, in 2002, when the Taiwanese president rocked the world by supporting a referendum on independence, his move was viewed as a reaction to Nauru’s sudden switch of loyalties to the People’s Republic.

The case of Nauru also shows how quickly islands can go from international pariahs to valued partners, depending on large states’ whims. In 2003, the US appears to have decided that the Nauruans’ passport-for-sale scheme was not a danger to international security after all. Just the opposite in fact: it offered a means to smuggle nuclear scientists out of North Korea. If reports are true, Nauru, the one-time bandit, suddenly found itself made deputy sheriff.

This special attitude towards islands – an attitude which does not seem to pertain to other small states – reflects the strong hold they exercise over the popular imagination. Blame that Christmas favourite, Treasure Island. For people living a routine mainland life, islands signify pirates or palm trees: they are either dangerous or alluring.

At one extreme are the harmless bores who view islands as a serious threat to international security and stability, can recite by heart the guidelines on good governance produced with a cheerful lack of irony by the EU, OECD or G20, and show an unhealthy interest in all forms of small-island deviance.

At the other are the escapists who see islands as an alluring alternative to mainland life and who secretly dream of seizing a rocky outcrop and establishing a libertarian utopia of their own.

Islands are thus either ‘unviable’  –  incapable of sustaining themselves without cheating on big states, and ripe for depopulation  –  or an escape  –  ripe for repopulation by mainlanders. Acknowledging instead that islands are in fact entities in their own right, capable of responsible self-regulation – within the same context of global interdependence that affects all countries – might help avoid unfortunate situations like Nauru’s.

After all, if the reports about 2003’s ‘Operation Weasel’ are accurate, Nauru’s citizens had just succeeded in stopping their government from selling passports on grounds of good governance, only to see the US reintroduce the practice for them.