KMT’s Historical Australasian Presence: Sydney and Melbourne Offices and the Chinese Diaspora

Built Environment, Heritage & Conservation, International Relations, Local history

KMT in Sydney

The above photo shows the well-worn, slightly scruffy and tarnished facade of an old building in the historic industrial inner city district of Sydney. The sign on the shopfront says ‘Chinese Ginsengs and Herbs Co’. Google Maps tells me the address is 4-10 Goulburn Street, although the sign above the entrance indicates the address is “75-77 Ultimo Road Haymarket”. I’m going to go with what the building says rather than what my iPhone indicates…the key point is that this building is within wok-tossing distance of Hay and Dixon Streets, the epicentre of Sydney’s traditional Chinatown.

The awning above the Ginseng shop gives the real clue to the building’s history – in faded blue and red (the colours of the Republic of China better known today as Taiwan or Chinese Taipei), are the words The Chinese Nationalist Party of Australasia. The letters ‘KMT’ and the building’s date, 1921′, at the top of the facade further emphasises its political association with China.

The Haymarket building was purchased in 1921 with funds raised by Chinese-Australian supporters of the KMT or Kuomintang, a Chinese nationalist party headed by Dr Sun-Yat-sen that gained prominence after the overthrow of the last Qing emperor and the transition to republican rule. The Australasian KMT had earlier evolved out of a grass-roots organisation in Sydney called the Young China League, the impetus for the emergence of YCL/Australian KMT came largely from Sino-Australian merchants James Ah Chuey and William Yinson Lee.

KMT Sydney’s regional leadership
Ultimo Road was KMT’s Australasian headquarters, from this building the local Party liaised with the KMT Central party in China and coordinated the activities of other regional KMT branch offices elsewhere in Australia, New Zealand and the wider Pacific Islands. The Sydney Office supervised seven branches – NSW, Victoria, WA, Wellington and Auckland (NZ), Fiji and New Guinea. It also directly administered Brisbane, Adelaide and Darwin and had jurisdiction over Tahiti. Melbourne office having to defer to Sydney’s seniority and hegemony provoked KMT membership tensions between Australia’s two largest cities.

KMT and the Chinese diaspora in Australia
KMT’s Sydney branch performed several functions on behalf of the Party. One of these involved an educational role for the local émigré Chinese. The KMT association fostered modern political ideas, promoting pro-republican values and the virtues of parliamentary democracy as an antidote to the gains made by Chinese communists in courting popular support in the Chinese countryside.

Recruiting new KMT members from among the community in Sydney was part of the Australasian association’s growth strategy. To bind Chinese emigrants to the Party and its objectives, the Sydney office organised dances, dinners, social gatherings, held screenings of Chinese movies. Recreational activities were another means of incorporating the Chinese locals – gyms and sporting teams were established to encourage physical exercise.

At crunch periods in the 20th century during conflicts the KMT were embroiled in on mainland China (the National Defence War against Japan, the Nationalists/Communists Civil War), the offices in Sydney and Melbourne had an instrumental role on the ground in Australia. The two associations maintained solidarity with and mobilised support for the struggles of the Chinese Nationalists headed by Chiang Kai-shek…the local Sydney branch coordinated the collection of donations❉ that were remitted back to Nanking (the Nationalists’ Chinese capital) to finance the war effort (equip the KMT Army, buy fighter planes for the Air Force, etc)

KMT Club (pre-war)
KMT Club (c.1980s)
Kuomintang Nationalist Club, Melbourne

Concurrently with the establishment of the KMT headquarters in Sydney, the Chinese Nationalists with money from Chinese benefactors resident in Melbourne commissioned famous Chicagoan architect Walter Burley Griffin to convert a brick warehouse at 109 Little Bourke Road into the city’s KMT association premises. Griffin’s design of a new facade for the building in 1921 was financed by Canton-born, Melbourne social reformer, Cheok Hong Cheong. Cheong had a long association with Griffin as a client and was a shareholder in the Griffins’ Greater Sydney Development Association.

Australasian Canton Club
The Australasian association role eventually extended to working for returning émigrés from Australasia and Oceania. This happened when the Australasian KMT Canton Club was set up in that southern Chinese city(office)◊…its purpose was to assist the émigrés who subsequently returned to China. This assistance took many forms such as advocacy in legal matters, providing board and lodging for members passing through Canton to and from Australia and NZ and advice on investments. The Canton office also produced the widely distributed official journal of the Australasian KMT.

Both 1920s KMT buildings, Sydney and Melbourne, are still standing, and the clubs continue to have social associations with the local Chinese-Australian communities.

❉ this material support took on added significance and urgency for the KMT cause after imperial Japan invaded Manchuria in 1937
◊ the location was chosen mainly because of the pattern of past migration to Australia and New Zealand – most Chinese migrants had come from Canton (Guangzhou) or from the wider province of Guangdong

Judith Brett & Mei-Fen Kuo, Unlocking the History of the Australasian Kuo-Min Tang 1911-2013, (2013)
John Fitzgerald, Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia (2012)
Kate Bagnall, ‘Picnics and Politics’, Inside Story, 24-Jan-2014,
‘Griffin’s Chinese Nationalist Party Building in Lt Bourke’ (Building & Architecture),

“Breaking through” against Terrorism?: The Government’s Counter-Narrative and a Matter of Transparency

International Relations, Media & Communications, National politics, Society & Culture

Last week I received, among the usual array of unsolicited online communications, something from a researcher from the London-based social communications company, Breakthrough Media. The pro forma email said that BM (my abbreviation, not theirs) was casting a new online TV series and were on the lookout for people aged over 50 (that’s me!) to be in the show…apparently they were particularly interested in folk in that demographic “who love to chat, have a laugh and would like to know how to Email, Skype, Facebook, Online Shop, Online Bank, or use the Internet” (capitalisation all hers!).

The message went on to say that they were “also looking for tech savvy friends, family members, or colleagues, who could team up with the Over 50 candidates to be their teaching buddy, during filming” (in August). What they specifically wanted from me was leads on “great potential candidates” for the program. Now, taken on face value, this all sounded innocent, admirable even, very community minded.

Elizabeth House: BM’s ‘anonymous’ London location
I had never heard of “Breakthrough Media”…just another of the new media start-ups in the ever mushrooming world of social networking I supposed, and usually I ignore such online pitches. But somewhat intrigued I decided to try to find out a bit about them. Their website would be a good place to start, I thought❈. It was however unsurprisingly jargon-laden and disappointingly short on substance…the website’s description of what BM was about, went “we design and build award-winning campaigns that tackle some of the world’s toughest social issues, helping our clients counter misinformation, prevent violent extremism, promote democracy and protect the environment”. Full of jargony generalities such as “our strategic thinking and our creativity are joined-up and informed by real-time audience engagement…(and) inspiring positive social change” ( In its job advertisements the company describes itself thus: “Breakthrough is a communications agency and production company. We specialise in conflict resolution, society building and countering violent extremism”. Again, the message resonates with progressive, international goals and desirable outcomes.

I turned to other, independent, commentators and observers of Breakthrough Media…frankly there wasn’t much on the web about the media company, but one fairly thorough dissection of BM’s role and its background was contained in a 2016 report by The Guardian on Britain’s RICU (the Research Information and Communications Unit) [‘Inside Ricu, the shadowy propaganda unit inspired by the cold war’, The Guardian, 03-May-2016, (Ian Cobain, Alice Ross, Rob Evans & Mona Mahmood)]. RICU was created in 2007 as an arm of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OCST) and funded by the Home Office. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue defines RICU’s function as “coordinating government-wide communication activities to counter the appeal of violent extremism while promoting stronger grass-roots inter-community relations []. RICU’s work is a key part of Westminster’s anti-radicalisation program, ‘Prevent’.

The relationship between RICU and Breakthrough Media
Where does BM fit into the picture of RICU and its fight against extreme fundamentalism, terrorism and ISIS? The two have a contractual arrangement: RICU pays BM to produce digital materials, films, Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles, YouTube clips, and the like, which promote the UK government’s anti-terrorism policies. The propaganda, emanating from BM on behalf of the Home Office (BM unsurprisingly prefers the term “strategic communications”) is aimed at Muslim communities, the desired outcome being “a reconciled British Muslim identity”. As The Guardian report revealed, BM’s stratagem is to “influence online conversations by being embedded within target communities via a network of moderate organisations that are supportive of its [sic] goals”.

An uncomfortable and problematic relationship?
BM is well remunerated by OCST for its counter-terrorism work (earning a reported £11.8M during 2012-2016), but its role as a conduit for RICU has some disquieting aspects. BM’s contacts with Islamic communities, either directly or through its PR team Horizon Public Relations, is not transparent. BM represents its work to the public without disclosure of its connection to the British government. At least one former government minister has conceded (to The Guardian) that deception in the dissemination of the messages could damage trust between the government and Muslim citizens. Other outspoken critics of this practice include human rights lawyer Imran Khan and the vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations Frances Webber who saw it as giving an appearance that Muslim groups had been co-opted to a government agenda [‘Revealed: UK’s covert propaganda bid to stop Muslims joining Isis’, The Guardian, 03-May-2016, (Ian Cobain et al)].

Advocacy groups and critics of the Home Office policy have complained that RICU/OCST uses the Muslim Civil Society Organisations (MCSO) as mouthpieces for their government counter-narratives, irrespective of whether the MSCO are aware of it or not [‘The Home Office is Creating Mistrust within Muslim Civil Society’, (CAGE, 16-May-2016),

The Guardian also showed how RICU (as the paymasters) have an editing role in the finished work of Breakthrough…RICU’s head Richard Chalk is an occasional visitor to BM’s Lambeth office – Chalk can be found at times sitting in the edit suites and monitoring the BM productions. One source of the newspaper indicated whilst Breakthrough projects are not strictly scripted by RICU, they’ll “make it clear that they want a particular form of words to be used at a particular point in a film”⚀.

RICU and BM are also linked in a veil of secrecy in regard to the media, as The Guardian discovered. Neither parties allow their staff to talk to the newspapers about their roles in counter-terrorism. BM cited reasons of ‘confidentiality’ and ‘NFP’ to the The Guardian for its reticence. The paper’s investigative team did unearth the fact that even some of the freelancers employed by Breakthrough to do RICU’s clandestine bidding were unaware of BM’s (covert) connection with the British government.

Given the scale of the threat posed, the majority of Britons would have few qualms about the Home Office using its agencies to engage in “industrial scale propaganda” in a bid to counter ISIS’s propaganda machine and its success in poisoning the minds of some young Muslim Britons [B Hayes & A Qureshi, ‘Going global: the UK’s government’s “CVE” agenda, counter-radicalisation and covert propaganda’, (Open Democracy UK, 04-May-2016),]. BM have undeniably produced some good work in getting the message across, but where it becomes ethically questionable is when contractors like Breakthrough Media and co-opted NGOs present their counter propaganda whilst in the guise of being “independent, community-based campaigns”, when the reality is that the information they are disseminating to schools, university ‘freshers’ and the like is backed (and guided in most cases) by the government.
❈ a number of the links on the website menu were broken at the time I accessed it…that internet know-how training they were talking about might have come in handy in the BM IT department!
OCST itself was the successor to IRD (Information Research Department), a top-secret body set up by Britain’s Foreign Office in 1948, during the early dawn of the Cold War, and wound up the same year Elvis died (1977).The Independent has drawn attention to IRD’s questionable record during its existence of disseminating anti-Communist propaganda routinely exaggerating stories of Soviet atrocities and anti-British plots, S Lucas, ‘REAR WINDOW : COLD WAR :The British Ministry of Propaganda’, The Independent, 26-Feb-1995,
The Guardian also disclosed that BM’s founding directors have pre-existing links to the governing Conservative Party

A Tale of Two Enclaves: Contested Sovereignty in the Mediterranean – Gibaltrar and Ceuta

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

They lie on different continents, just a shade over 28 kilometres from each other, on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar, and the common denominator for both is Spain. Their situations are in some ways the mirror image of each other – one, Gibraltar, is a tiny piece of the United Kingdom within the natural geography of Spain, and the other, Ceuta, is a tiny piece of Spain within the natural geography of Morocco. Geologically, both landscapes are physically dominated by a large chunk of limestone rock, viz. the Rock of Gibraltar and Monte Hacho (both probably are heavily fortified). Another thing they have in common is that the sovereign state in possession of each enclave is fiercely determined that its unilateral hold over the territory is not negotiable.

Spain’s Places of Sovereignty
In discussing the tiny, controversial entities of Ceuta (known as Sebta in the Arab world) and Gibraltar, it is necessary to introduce a third entity into this binary equation – Melilla, because this territory located 225km east of Ceuta is linked to it by circumstance. Melilla, although overshadowed by the higher profile of Ceuta, shares its peculiar status – both are minuscule Spanish territories incongruously appended to the Moroccan state, which in turn claims sovereignty over both enclaves. And certainly, when it comes to advocating sovereignty over Ceuta and Melilla, both sides treat them as a “job lot”❈.

The following table is a snapshot of the comparative basic data on the three enclaves:

Comparative Table of the Spanish & British Enclaves

StatusOverseas TerritoryAutonomous CityAutonomous City
Area Size6.8km18.5km12.3km
Population32,194 (2015)82,376 (2011)78,476 (2011)
Ethnic CompositionGilbratarians, Other British, Maghrebis, Maltese, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, IndiansArab Berbers, Spanish, Sephardic Jews, IndiansArab Riffian Berbers, Spanish, Sephardic Jews, Indians
Ceded to parent country 1713 (England, later UK)1668 (Spain)1668 (Spain)
Source: Wikipedia


Walking through the streets of Gibraltar it’s hard to miss the very visible signs of ‘British-ness’ or ‘Anglo-ness’ in the territory … red telephone boxes, Leyland double-decker buses, fish-and-chips shops, “English atmosphere” pubs, British bobbies, Union Jacks and the like. It is after all a BOT, a British Overseas Territory – and there are scarce few of those left on the world map! To the residents of the Rock these trappings are an unequivocal testimony to the loyalty of Gibraltarians to the United Kingdom and the British Crown.

Brexit for Gibraltar?
The vote last June by Britain and Northern Ireland to leave the EU was nowhere more momentous in the United Kingdom than in Gibraltar. Gibraltar, in contrast to most elsewhere in Britain, voted 96 per cent to stay in the Common Market[1]. Energised, the Spanish government seized on the Brexit opt-out to push the Gibraltar sovereignty issue again, calling for joint sovereignty of the two countries. With the unpalatable prospect for Gibraltar of being denied vital access to a single European market thanks to the British decision, Madrid believe (or hope) that they can leverage Gibraltarians into a rethink of their future options.

Gibraltar for its own part has argued for a special relationship post-Brexit with the European Union (as has Scotland)[2]. Madrid however has turned up the heat on Britain and its Iberian BOT, initiating tighter border controls, a deliberate go-slow affecting all vehicles and persons crossing into the British Overseas Territory from Spain. Already in 2013 the Spanish government threatened to charge motorists €50 to cross the border, restrict flights as well as investigate the tax status of 6,000 Gibraltar residents who own investment properties in Spain[3].

Gibraltar Chief Minister Picardo stressed that the implementation of a ‘hard’ border by Madrid would impose hardships on both sides, pointing out that 12,000 workers cross daily to work in the construction and services industries on “the Rock”[4]. But the stalemate persists and border-crossers continue to endure (up to) six-hour delays into and out of Gibraltar⊛.

The simmering tensions have aggravated underlying issues between the two European disputants in recent times … the Brits in 2014 asserted that there had been over 5,000 unauthorised incursions of Spanish ships into Gibraltar’s waters during 2013[5]. Local fishermen from Spain have complained that the construction of an artificial reef in Gibraltar in 2013 has imperilled the livelihoods of Spanish fishermen by depleting local fish stocks[6]. Spain has also objected to the presence of British warships in Gibraltar’s port as an unnecessary provocation[7].

The Rock-cum-Fortress
A minor incident involving a US nuclear submarine and warning flares in the Port of Gibraltar in April 2016 also drew Madrid’s displeasure (notwithstanding the fact that the port is a frequent maintenance stop for US subs)[8]. Some suspicions seem to be fed by prolonged antagonisms. Spaniards have expressed disquiet about the 1,400 foot high limestone Rock, a fortress-like structure in itself, hinting darkly at the possibility that the Gibraltarians may have fortified it[9].

Another point of Spanish aggravation on the frontier has been the issue of smuggling. A recurrent problem since the 1990s, Spain sees Gibraltar as the conduit for an estimated 1½ billion contraband cigarettes as well as drugs, mainly hashish (from Morocco) coming into Spain each year … resulting in a massive loss of customs revenues for Madrid who accuse the British and Gibraltarian authorities of turning a blind eye to the illicit activities[10].

Gibraltar – the historical issue
The Catholic King (Philip V of Spain) … yield to the Crown of Great Britain the full and entire propriety of the town and castle of Gibraltar together with the port, fortifications and forts thereun belonging … the said propriety to be held and enjoyed absolutely with all manner of right for ever❞.
[Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, 13 July 1713]
(Note no reference in the legal document of Spain ceding the territorial waters of Gibraltar to the English victors)

Bay of Gibraltar ca.1704
The British secured the tiny enclave of Gibraltar during the Spanish War of Succession, having (with the Dutch) captured the peninsula from Spain early in the war and then been granted ownership of it as part of the spoils of war in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The longevity of Britain’s occupation of Gibraltar is one the arguments used to validate possession of this remote, non-contiguous part of the UK. Spain counters that the English takeover in 1704 was as interlopers in a conflict provoked by a Spanish dynastic dispute, and the English claims on Gibraltar were limited by the Treaty and did not include the isthmus, the area of the current airport and Gibraltar’s territorial waters[11].

A choice of principles: Self-determination Vs territorial integrity
Britain argues that its right to retain Gibraltar rests primarily on the issue of self-determination, pointing to the fact that the citizens of Gibraltar twice voted by massive majorities to remain part of the UK (1967 and 2002)¤. Despite being embedded in an Hispanic milieu, the people of Gibraltar culturally self-identify as British.

The Spanish counter-argument has been that the validity of its sovereignty lies in the realm of territorial integrity. In support of this Spain has cited UN Resolution 1514 (XV) (the UN principle of territorial integrity): “any attempt✥ at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. Spain also argues that the passage of UN Principles of Decolonisation resolutions in the 1960s [2231 (XXI) and 2353 (XXII) ‘Question of Gibraltar’] affirms that the principle of territorial integrity prevails over Gibraltar’s right to self-determination[12].

Ceuta y Melilla
As already mentioned the parallels between Britain’s Gibraltar and Spain’s Ceuta in particular, are stark … two small but strategically positioned enclaves, one almost on the southernmost tip of Europe and the other on the north-western point of Africa, both tacked on to the end of a foreign state. The seeming irony of Spain’s passionate advocacy of its right to absorb Gibraltar into the nation-state is not lost on Morocco who has pointed out that the presence of Spanish military on Ceuta and Melilla poses a threat to Moroccan national security (and territorial integrity), and argues that its existence contravenes the UN principle of decolonisation[13].

Ciudad Autónoma de Ceuta (from Mon Abyla)
Spain’s basis for retaining its hold over Ceuta and Melilla rests on a number of criteria – longevity of occupation, right of conquest, the doctrine of Terra Nullis (historical justifications); national security and the territorial integrity of the state. As well Spain, like the UK, contends that the great bulk of its residents want to retain their Spanish status[14].

North Africa: Boundary disputes the way of the world
In North Africa, and in Africa generally, disputes between neighbouring states are legion (a 2015 estimate put it at close to 100 (active or dormant) border conflicts across the continent). And Morocco has had its fair share of them … with Spain over control of Western Sahara until Spain withdrew in 1975; and subsequently over the same territory embroiled together with Mauritania in a conflict against the Polisario Front (militaristic pro-independence group representing the Sahrawi people); in the 1960s contesting its border with Algeria[15].

A Spanish double standard?
Spain has gone to great pains to play down any perceived similarity that might be drawn between the situation of Gibraltar and that of its North African enclaves. Madrid portrays Gibraltar (officially a British Overseas Territory) as no more than a colonial remnant (“ripe for decolonisation”) … Gibraltar it argues should rightfully be politically reunited with Spain which it was part of until taken by force three centuries ago.

Ceuta and Melilla on the other hand, Madrid says, are integral parts of Spain and have been since the formation of the modern Spanish state, long predating the existence of modern Morocco as an independent, sovereign political entity (1956). The enclaves are semi-autonomous with the same status as the mainland (described by Madrid as “autonomous cities”), and under pressure Spain has hinted that it will offer Ceuta and Melilla greater autonomy[16]. Spain’s longevity argument could be countered by Moroccans who can point to an Arab presence in Ceuta and the other North African enclaves since the 8th century[17].

UN Committee 4: Non-Self Governing Territory status
Morocco’s claim on the Plazas, from a legal standpoint, is generally thought to be a weaker case than Spain’s on Gibraltar. Whilst the UN includes Gibraltar in a list of non-self governing territories (international entities whose eligibility for decolonisation the UN investigates each year), Ceuta and Melilla is not. This is because of the Barajas Spirit (Espiritu de Barajas), an agreement reached in 1963 between Spain’s General Franco and Morocco’s King Hassan II … Morocco agreed to deal with the Ceuta and Melilla issue bilaterally, with Spain separately, rather than submit it to the UN to be raised with other territorial disputes of the day such as Gibraltar. And because Morocco was preoccupied in the 1960s and ’70s with the recovery of southern territories (Sidi Ifni and Western Sahara), it delayed any action on Melilla and Ceuta and missed its chance to register them on the NSGT territories list for the UN to debate their future[18].

Ceuta/El Tarajal, a heavily-reinforced border wall
Spain, without pressure from a third-party, unsurprisingly, has played a straight bat to any attempts by Morocco to pursue the question of Ceuta and Melilla sovereignty. Spain fortified both enclaves and constructed razor wire border fences in the 1990s designed to stop illegal immigration and smuggling from Morocco. Impoverished Moroccans and other, mainly sub-Saharan Africans have long sought an entry point into Europe and the EU through the two Spanish autonomous cities. Because of the ongoing attempts to breach the border, authorities later reinforced the walls with a 6m high double fence structure and a “no man’s land” strip (a neutral zone) separating the Spanish outposts from Moroccan territory.

Border wars
The enhanced security hasn’t stopped desperate African migrants from trying to scale the border walls of Ceuta and Melilla (many have been shot and a number killed by unfriendly fire from security forces on both sides of the fence[19]) … since 2015 there has been an increase in the number of break-in attempts. As recently as January 2017 1,100 African migrants tried to storm the border in a violent confrontation with Spanish border guards[20].

Other incidents in recent years have kept the disputed territories issue on the boil. In 2002 a potential flash point erupted when a handful of Moroccan soldiers captured a tiny, uninhibited rocky outcrop named Perejil Island (near Ceuta and part of the disputed Plazas), leaving five cadets in charge of it. The cadets were summarily and peacefully ejected by elite troops and Spanish sovereignty swiftly reinstated[21]. The visit of King Juan Carlos I to Ceuta and Melilla in 2007 (the first reigning Spanish monarch to visit the Plazas) succeeded in stirring up further ill-will between Morocco and Spain over the territorial dispute[22].

PostScript: Gibraltar, Mission seemingly Impossible – what gain is there for Spain?
In the context of the United Kingdom’s commitment to Gibraltar and its people’s unwavering determination to stay subjects of the British Crown, the likelihood of Spain regaining its former territory in the foreseeable future is exceedingly slim✜. Why therefore does Spain persist in what seems to all appearances to be a futile exercise against such odds?[23]

1967 Gibraltar Poll: endorsement of UK rule
Madrid’s objections to “British Gibraltar” derive from a mixture of motives – that Gibraltar continues to be (in the words of former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzáles) “a pebble on the bottom of Spain’s shoe” is an impediment to the country’s sense of national pride. Gibraltar’s existence as the only colony remaining in Europe is an affront to Spanish nationalists, and its continuation in the hands of a historic foe a reminder of the loss of Spain’s once great power status. A further driver for Spain in its quest is the perception that Britain has breached the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. Article X states that if ❝the Crown of Great Britain (decides to) grant, sell or by any means to alienate therefrom the propriety of the said town of Gibraltar, it is hereby agreed and concluded that the preference of having the sale shall always be given to the Crown of Spain before any others❞. When the UK offered the people of Gibraltar the opportunity to determine their own future by referendum in 1967, it was (according to Spain’s interpretation) reneging on its 1713 agreement to allow the Spanish government the “first right of refusal” if Britain were to renounce its own claim to the enclave. Furthermore, Spain contends that Britain’s expansion of its territory in Gibraltar on land and sea also contravenes the Treaty[24].

Aside from these matters, the status quo in Gibraltar represents financial disadvantages for Spain, obstacles that regime change in the enclave could potentially provide a windfall for Madrid, eg, Gibraltar’s long-time role as a “smuggler’s paradise” (principally narcotics), which as Spain expert Gareth Stockey of Nottingham University states, continues to be “a drain on Spanish resources”. Similarly, Spain have sought to draw international attention to Gibraltar and its reputation as a tax haven (OECD “Grey List” of countries lacking fiscal transparency). Low-taxing Gibraltar has had negative spin-offs for its Hispanic neighbour’s revenues both in the collection of taxes for individual citizens and for companies. Madrid has tried to turn the spotlight on to the Rock’s company tax dodges … Gibraltar has had over 30,000 registered businesses (roughly parity with the territory’s population!) and only a 10% corporate tax rate (until 2011 it charged no company taxes for many businesses), compared to a 30% tax in Spain[25].

❈ there are three other minor Spanish territories in North Africa, which together with Ceuta and Melilla are known collectively as Plazas de soberanía (“Places of Sovereignty”)
⊛ an even more disturbing prospect for Gibraltarians is the closure altogether of the border – many of them are old enough to recall the closure by President Franco in 1969, a blockade that ensued until 1982
¤ the 1967 referendum asking if the Gibraltarians were in favour of replacing British sovereignty with Spanish, returned a resounding 99.64% ‘no’ vote; the 2002 referendum with the question rephrased as “Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?” again definitively said ‘no’, 98.97%
✥ ie, in this instance the UK’s insistence on self-determination for the enclave
✜ especially when you take into account the total lack of an irredentist impulse from within the Gibraltar community

[1] ‘Gibraltar: 96% vote to stay in EU’, Euobserver, 24-Jun-2016, www
[2] B Reyes, ‘EU parliament hears contrasting views on Gibraltar and Brexit’, Gibraltar Chronicle, 31-Jan-2017,
[3] V Barford, ‘What are the Competing Claims over Gibraltar?’, BBC News Magazine, 12-Aug-2013,
[4] B Hague, ‘Gibraltar caught between a rock and a hard place after UK’s Brexit Vote’, ABC News, 13-Oct-2016,
[5] ‘Gibraltar profile – Timeline’, BBC News, 16-Mar-2015,
[6] R Booth, Gibraltar frontier conflict causing frustration for locals’, The Guardian,
[7] Barford, loc.cit.
[8] R Faith, ‘Spanish-UK Dispute over Gibraltar Flares Up Again after Warning Shot Incident with US Nuclear Sub’, Vice News, 10-May-2016,
[9] Barford, op.cit.
[10] R Aldrich & J Connell, The Last Colonies (1998)
[11] Barford, op.cit.. The tiny Balearic island Minorca also fell to Britain in the wash-up of the Treaty of Utrecht – though unlike Gibraltar it was returned to Spain via the Treaty of Amiens (1802)
[12] ibid.
[13] Morocco takes the view also that Spain’s determination to pursue its claim to Gibraltar adds substance to Morocco’s argument in respect of the Plazas, G O’Reilly & JG O’Reilly, Ceuta and the Spanish Sovereign Territories: Spanish and Moroccan Claims, (1994). This uncomfortable comparison was not lost on King Juan Carlos either – documents declassified in 2014 reveal that the Spanish monarch conceded to the British ambassador in 1982 that Spain was reluctant to push too hard on Gibraltar for fear of encouraging Moroccan claims on its territories, F Govan (1), ‘Spain’s King Juan Carlos told Britain: “we don’t want Gibraltar back” ‘, The Telegraph (London), 06-Jan-2014,
[14] O’Reilly, loc.cit.
[15] G Oduntan, ‘Africa’s border disputes are set to rise – but there are ways to stop them’, The Conversation, 14-Jul-2015,
[16] F Govan (2), ‘The Battle over Ceuta, Spain’s African Gibraltar’, The Telegraph (London), 10-Aug-2013,
[17] ‘International Court of Justice – Morocco/Spain’, (Rumun: Rutgers Model UN),
[18] S Bennis, ‘Gibraltar, Ceuta and Melilla: Spain’s unequal sovereignty disputes’, The New Arab, 28-Jun-2016,
[19] N Davies, ‘Melilla: Europe’s dirty secret’, The Guardian, 17-Apr-2010,
[20] ‘Migrants storm border fence in Spanish enclave of Ceuta’, BBC News, 01-Jan-2017,
[21] though it was summarily repulsed, the would-be coup was seen as testing Spain’s resolve to defend Ceuta and Melilla, ‘Perejil Island’, Wikipedia,
[22] Govan 2, op.cit.
[23] if the highly improbable were to happen and Spain recover its long-lost province, an interested observer might be Barcelona … the Catalans lost their autonomy in the aftermath of the Utrecht Treaty and it has been speculated that the restoration of Gilbratar might trigger a new call for Catalonian independence, ‘The Economist explains … Why is Gibraltar a British territory?’ (T.W.) The Economist, 08-Aug-2013,
[24] ‘Four reasons Gibraltar should be Spanish’, The Local (es), 08-Aug-2013,
[25] ibid.; L Frayer, ‘Once a Tax Haven, Gibraltar Now Says It’s Low-Tax’, (NPR Parallels), 17-Apr-2016 (broadcast),

Kaliningrad Oblast: Withering of the Russian Connexion in “Amber Country”?

International Relations, Politics, Regional History, Social History

A dilution of Russian connectivity among Kaliningrad’s population?

Eighty-seven per cent of the population of Russia’s Kalininskaya province (out of 941,873 residents (2010 Census)) are ethnic Russians. Because of Kaliningrad’s geographic isolation from the rest of the Russian Federation (it is 1,095km distance from Moscow), it depends on its trade links with nearby EU states. When Vladimir Putin embarked on trade wars with the West over Crimea, Kaliningrad was hit hardest by the ensuing food embargo. In this environment proximity allowed many Kaliningraders to venture especially to Poland on shopping sprees without requiring visas. School children in the Oblast, many of whom have studied in neighbouring Lithuania, Poland and Germany, have only hazy recognition of the names of Russian cities. Kaliningraders, who can afford to, have been buying properties in EU countries¹.

Other meaningful Kaliningrad statistics:
25% of residents have Schengen (Treaty) visas
60% have foreign passports
34% identify as SBNR (spiritual but not religious) cf. 30.9% Russian Orthodox and 33.1% Atheist or non-religious (2012 official survey, Arena – Atlas of Religions and Nationalities in Russia)

The cumulative effect of all these developments has seen a trend, as Professor V Shulgin observed in a controversial article on, involving an identity shift (especially in younger Kaliningraders) away from Russian nationalism to a more liberal and European identity².

Prof Shulgin paid a personal price for expressing an opinion that the Kremlin did not want to hear voiced, but the question remains – with so many younger residents of the Oblast perceiving themselves as European – will that eventually snowball into a collective desire by Kaliningraders to join the European Union? Given Moscow’s firm grip on Kaliningrad at the moment❈, this doesn’t appear on the horizon in the short-term at least.

imageIn 2006 Moscow introduced a Special Economic Zone in Kaliningrad. This was intended to provide duty-free trade opportunities in the Oblast and transform Kaliningrad into Russia’s version of Hong Kong or Singapore. The SEZ however failed miserably, it was unable to achieve the necessary economic integration into the Baltic Sea region³, nor did it create a viable tourist trade. Kaliningrad hasn’t had a good track record with SEZs – in 1996 a Yantar (= amber – the region’s premier mineral) Special Economic Zone was started but it has achieved only limited success¤. The closure of Kaliningrad’s SEZ in April 2016 has left the Oblast with questions marks over its economic direction from here⁴.


❈ despite the Russian Republic not having a contiguous border with its most western oblast
¤ Kaliningrad was part of the Amber Road in ancient times, a trade route for transporting amber from the North and Baltic Seas to the Mediterranean Sea and Imperial Rome

¹ ‘The Invasion of Crimea is Hurting Russia’s Other Enclave’, (Interview with Ola Cichowlas), Forbes, 6-Jun-2014,; P Goble, ‘From Siberia to Kaliningrad: the fledging independence movements gaining traction in Russia’, The Guardian (London), 16-Aug-2014,
² cited in R Piet, ‘Kaliningrad: The Last wall in Europe’, (19-Nov-2014), Aljazeera,
³ at its core the economic failures had political roots … Moscow maintained tight reins on the province’s economic activities because of the old fear that giving it too much autonomy might create the conditions for it to secede from the Republic, S Sukhankin, ‘Kaliningrad: Russia’s stagnant enclave’, Economic Council on Foreign Relations, 31-Mar-2016,
⁴ D Crickus, ‘Kaliningrad: Russia’s Own Breakaway Region?’, The National Interest, 21-Mar-2014,

¹ ² ³ ⁴ ⁶ ⁹ ⁰ ⁵ ⁸ ⁷

Moscow’s Baltic Enclave: Potential Flashpoint for Cold War Redux?

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

The Curonian Spit is a distinctive geographical feature on the Baltic Coast, a narrow spit of sand-dune covered land some 98km in length. UNESCO describes it as a “unique example of a landscape of sand dunes under constant threat from (the) natural forces of wind and tide”[1]. Recently the Spit has been the scene of a different, human-produced threat, one evoking memories for locals of a past Cold War conflict.

Curonian Spit
Curonian Spit
Curonian Spit bridges the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad❈ with eastern Lithuania, thus being a landform shared by the two countries. The normally tranquil seaside atmosphere has in the last two years been replaced by a tense mood, especially on the Lithuanian side. The seeds of the tension has its origins in Russia’s military incursions into the Ukraine in 2014 and the ensuing conflict over the control of the Crimean Peninsula. The Lithuanian government interpreted the brazen nature of Moscow’s military intervention in that sovereign state as a warning to the possibility of it being next on President Putin’s takeover list[2].

In the aftermath of the events in Crimea in 2014, the lessons of history (the 50 year Soviet occupation of the Baltic States) gave the Lithuanians and the other Balts cause to fear that a new invasion might be on the cards. Since then there has been immediate and tangible evidence of the perceived threat from Russia. Moscow has undertaken a renewed military build-up in Kaliningrad, adding an Air Force detachment and early warning system (Voronezh radar) to the land forces already on the ground[3].

Geopolitics plays a part in heightening the threat to the Baltics. Lithuania’s safeguard (as well as that of Latvia and Estonia) is membership of NATO, however the location of this chunk of Russian territory (Kaliningradskaya Oblast) cuts the Baltic States (henceforth BS) off from the rest of western Europe. Adding to these concerns is the fact that Russia’s Baltic fleet is stationed at Kaliningrad. NATO’s countermove has seen it propose sending battalions of 1,000 (mostly US) troops each to the BS and Poland.

The Vilnius government’s reaction to the Crimea crisis in military terms was several-fold – forming a Rapid Response Force (RRF); reintroducing a national draft to bolster Lithuania’s paltry regular force (8,000 troops); mobilising volunteer partisans (eg, the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union). The motivation is the possibility of direct military intervention by Russia, but the more immediate worry is the sense that the Kremlin could well employ the same tactics as in Ukraine, using pro-Russian (Udijan) separatist insurgents within Lithuania to destabilise the country[4].

imageBoth sides claim that their militarisation of the Kaliningrad/ Baltic region is a necessary counter to the actions of the other, recreating in miniature the standoff scenario of the Cold War. NATO’s take on Russian intentions is that it wants to use Kaliningrad to strategically position surface-to-air (Iskander) missiles to block NATO access to BS and northern Poland in the event of an attack on these member states[5].

Lithuania’s and the other BS’ concerns about Russia extend to the possibility of hybrid war. Russia has also adopted a soft power approach to undermining the BS governments through a variety of means, eg, influencing electoral results by fuelling social tensions within the Russian minorities (less effective in Lithuania than in the other, more Russian populated countries); harming BS economies through economic and energy blockades, wilfully destroying infrastructures; trying to weaken BS faith in the security structure provided by NATO[6].

Both NATO and Russia have stepped up their displays of “muscle flexing” in Kaliningrad in an attempt to intimidate the other side. During August 2016, a large contingent of NATO ground troops fired artillery and mortars close to the border with the Russian province. At the same time Russian troops drilled close by the oblast’s capital. In September the Russian Baltic Fleet undertook exercises off the coast as a demonstration of the Republic’s naval power. Both sides have extensively conducted war games in Kaliningrad … all part of an ongoing tit-for-tat jockeying for advantage in the Baltics. Russia and NATO both claimed to be reacting to border encroachments which had put at risk its national security[7].

The thousands of NATO forces on the ground are clearly intended to provide a deterrence to any plan by the Russians for aggression against the BS. The deliberate execution of large-scale army manoeuvres in Kaliningrad on the borders with Lithuania and Poland by Russia are aimed at destabilising the border area and shaking local confidence in the Alliance[8].

It should not be overlooked that the militarisation of the Baltic area cuts both ways! Earlier this year NATO’s “Anaconda-2016” operation was comparably large in scale to anything the Kremlin has engineered in Kaliningrad. A 10-day exercise involving 31,000 troops from 24 countries … a blatant power-play that was criticised by the German foreign minister for being a Western show of “sabre-rattling and warmongering”[9].

Most commentators play down the likelihood of the tense stand-off in the Baltic region between NATO and Russia escalating into an open war, however it remains a critical hotspot in international circles. There have been recent “close-call” incidents between US and Russia military personnel, two such in April 2016 involved Russian fighter planes and US warships.

The Baltics’ concerns as to what the Russians might do in Kaliningrad are matched by other members of the Alliance, not least of which the US. The Pentagon and military think tanks, in the light of Moscow’s readiness to intervene in Ukraine and more recently in Syria, are not optimistic about their prospects in a military conflict with Russia in Kaliningrad, were it to eventuate. US military analysts concede that the US/NATO would be no match for the Russian forces given the level and quality of Moscow’s military installations in the oblast[10].

From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, Kaliningrad is integral to Russia’s western defence system. In ‘Putinspeak’ Kaliningrad is part of the “Russian World” – moreover the Baltics as a whole are part of that world, which in Putin’s thinking are “lost lands (that Russia) has a historic right to”[11]. Often, Putin observers have drawn a link between the image portrayed by the Russian president (autocratic strongman, ex-KGB, ultra-nationalist) with his supposed designs on a more expansive role in the region. Putin has justified any extra-border aggression on Russia’s part as being consistent with his unwavering commitment to protect ethnic Russians anywhere outside in the world[12].

Unequivocally Putin’s aggressive forays into Georgia (2008) and the Ukraine (2014) underscore that urge for Russian expansionism, psychologically perhaps revealing a desire to regain the leadership role of the former USSR. Many in the West are quick to pounce on Putin’s public pronouncements about Russia asserting or defending its rights in the world as proof of an aim on his part to establish a Pan-Slavic empire, the notion of one people (Slavs), one single political entity (supposedly a hankering back to the glory days of either the Tsarist era or the Russian-dominated Soviet Union)[13].

Although speculation has been rife in the international media that Putin will launch a full-scale attack on the Baltics (à la Crimea), replete with dire warnings that WWIII is imminent, there is no consensus that this is a likely outcome. Rather, most commentators see a persistence of the tension that has been building up, an environment in Kaliningrad which is highly weaponised and therefore continues to be unstable and dangerous.

A more likely scenario than outright invasion of BS by Russia is that Moscow will try to foment separatism, inflame the local radicals and militants to rebel against the Baltic governments – an objective that may be more attainable in Latvia and Estonia with ethnic Russian populations of 27% and 24% respectively, than in Lithuania (less than 6% ethnic Russians). Russia may also ‘parachute’ in Russian activists and volunteers over the border to act as “fifth columnists”[14].

For the Baltic countries membership of both the EU and NATO seems to offer reassurance, its citizens by and large simply get on with their daily lives, neither panicked or pessimistic about the shadow of Putin’s Russia on their doorsteps. An air of edgy uncertainty, a tenseness nonetheless prevails as everyone waits and watches for Putin’s next move⍁.

Suwalki Gap
Suwalki Gap

┄┅ ┈ ┉ ┄ ┅ ┈ ┉┄ ┅ ┈ ┉ ┄ ┅ ┈ ┉┄ ┄ ┅ ┈ ┉ ┄ ┅ ┈ ┉┅ ┈ ┉ ┄ ┅ ┄
❈ the city of Kaliningrad, incorporated into the USSR at the end of WWII, was previously Königsberg, a German city (before that it was part of East Prussia). Originally, the area was called Sambia, after an Old Prussian tribe by that name
⍁ See also the following, related blog ‘Kaliningrad Oblast: Withering of the Russian Connexion?’

[1] ‘Curonian Spit’, UNESCO World Heritage Centre,
[2] The Curonian Spit is not the only hotspot in Russia’s western sphere, another identified by Western strategists and carefully watched by Poland, Lithuania and the US is Suwalki Gap. The Gap is a thin corridor of land separating Poland and Lithuania and stretching for about 100km in length. The NATO allies worry that it could be relatively easy for Russia to capture the Gap, and in so doing, connect Kaliningrad directly with Russia’s ally Belarus … at the same time it would cut off the Baltics from all NATO member territory and further encircle Poland to its northeast, M Bearak, ‘This tiny stretch of countryside is all that separates Baltic states from Russian envelopment’, Washington Post, (20-Jun-2016),
[3] ‘Russian Kaliningrad region poses challenge at NATO summit’, Daily Mail, (Aust.) 7-Jul-2016, The contrary view of Moscow is that the Vilnius government is using the fear of Russia to mobilise its own people, (view of a Russian political scientist), ‘If Russia Gets Crimea, Should Germany Get Kaliningrad?’, The Moscow Times, (21-Mar-2014), Lithuanian officials retorted that Russia was trying to buy off Lithuania soldiers to spy on behalf of the Kremlin, R Emmott & A Sytas, ‘Nervous Baltics on war footing as NATO tries to deter Russia’, Reuters, (13-Jun-2016),
[4] K Engelhart, ‘Lithuania Thinks the Russians Are Coming – and It’s Preparing with Wargames’, 18-May-2015, Vice News,; A Nemtsova, ‘Ground Zero and the New Cold War’, The Daily Beast, (29-Aug-2016),
[5] L Kelly, ‘Russia’s Baltic outpost digs in for standoff with NATO’, Reuters, 5-Jul-2016,
[6] J Hyndle-Hussein, ‘The Baltic States on the conflict in Ukraine’, OSW Commentary,, (25-Jan-2015),
[7] H Mayer, ‘Putin’s Military Buildup in the Baltics Stokes Invasion Fears’, Bloomberg, (6-Jun-2016),
[8] ‘Lithuania, Poland, NATO Drills Aimed at Rising Tensions on Russian Border’, Sputnik News, (02-Jun-2016),
[9] for a contrary view from a Western source that downplays the destabilising intentions of Putin in the Baltics see P Gleupp, ‘Putin’s “Threats” to the Baltics: a Myth to Promote NATO Unity’, CounterPunch, (12-Jul-2016),
[10] See K Mizokami, ‘How a Russia vs. NATO war would really go down’, The Week, (16-Jun-2016),; ‘Baltic Conflict Would Spell Defeat for US, NATO Against Russia’, Sputnik News, (04-Feb-2016),
[11] ‘The Invasion of Crimea is Hurting Russia’s Other Enclave’, (Interview with Ola Cichowlas), Forbes, 6-Jun-2014,;
[12] characterised as the “Putin Doctrine”, R Coalson, ‘Putin Pledges To Protect All Ethnic Russians Anywhere. So, Where Are They?’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (10-Apr-2014),
[13] or perhaps to an ideological, mythic state, neither East or West but the “otherness” of a multi-ethnic melange of a state, one with Mongol roots, under the hegemony of “Great Russian Nationalism”, P Mishra, ‘Putin’s Eurasian Fantasy’, Bloomberg L.P. (17-Mar-2014). Putin’s use of the term Novorossiya (New Russia) in 2014 in reference to the Ukraine situation is another association with the (Tsarist) past and a manifestation of new-found Russian assertiveness.
[14] ‘Is Russia really a threat to the Baltic States?’, Al Jazeera, 8-Jul-2016,

Seemingly, Japan and Korea “Find Quarrel in a Straw?” … but its what lies beneath the Rocky Outcrops that counts

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

Not to be outdone by the strident diplomatic goings-on in the South China Sea, some of the groups of islands off the Northeast Asian coast have in recent years generated their own share of heat and controversy. The better known of the northern island disputes involve the Kuril Island group in the Sea of Okhotsk – diplomatically fought over for decades by Russia/USSR on one side and Japan on the other.

Some rocks between a rock & a hard place!
Some rocks between a rock & a hard place!
The other North Asian island dispute that I am going to focus on in this post has a lower media profile than the Kurils stand-off but has nonetheless contributed to a rise in tensions in the Sea of Japan between Korea and Japan❈. The highly contested islands are a miserable looking prize, two principal islets♰ plus 30 smaller slabs of rock emerging out of the sea (an even less prepossessing sight that the disputed Senkaku Islands further south). As with the Senkakus the rocky outcrops have been known by several different names depending on who was doing the naming. The neutral name is the Liancourt Rocks回, named after the French whaler which was almost wrecked around the rocks in 1849. The Japanese name is Takeshima (meaning “Bamboo Islands”). The Koreans call it Tok-do or Dok-do (meaning “Solitary Islands”). To complicate the matter the disputants have ascribed various other names to the islands at different periods, eg, Matsushima, Yankodo, Usan-do, Juk-do, Sok-do, etc, which have further obscured the question of ownership. On occasions the neighbouring island of Ulleung-do has been mistaked (innocently or otherwise) for Dok-do/Matsushima, and some historic charts show Ulleung-do to the east of Dok-do (which it isn’t!)[1].

The antecedents of the dispute over the islands appear to reside in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Under the Japan-Korea protocol in force then, Japan was green-lighted to occupy the islets for the duration of the war on the condition that it vacated them post-bellum, terms which Japan violated in 1905 by incorporating them into its nearby Shimane prefecture (without publicly announcing it had done so!), a prelude to Japan’s full annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910. Japan retrospectively used the Terra Nullius argument as justification for its seizure of the geo-strategic Liancourt Rocks.

Under the Western-imposed terms of the peace treaty (the 1951 San Francisco Treaty), Japan forfeited all possessions it had taken by force. After South Korea (ROC) retook Dok-do/Tok-do in 1954, Tokyo protested, arguing that as the disputed islands were not mentioned by name in the Treaty, it did not apply to them and therefore Japan should retain them (the SFT was a poorly draughted document in this respect)[3]. Since Korea’s reoccupation it has maintained a coast guard outpost on the islets (lighthouse, docking facilities added in the late 1990s), however they have remained almost entirely unoccupied[4].

Japan responded by referring the issue to the International Court of Justice. This tactical move was in vain though, because the rules of international law require both parties to agree to the dispute being heard at the ICJ before it can proceed. Korea, already in possession of the islets, naturally showed no interest in going this route … ROC’s position has remained steadfastly that Dok-do/Tok-do is “irrefutably (South) Korean”. Moreover, as Dong-Joon Park and Danielle Chubb argue, there is a powerful emotional dimension to the issue for Koreans, one that triggers their sense of “national identity”. Dok-do has symbolic significance as a sombre reminder of Koreans’ shameful experience of annexation by Japan[5].

Annals of Joseon Dynasty
Annals of Joseon Dynasty
Around 1962 Japan’s case shifted more from the Terra Nullius view to one emphasising Takeshima as an “inherent and ancient territory” of Japan. Both sides in fact have resorted to “proof” in the shape of old maps and documents purporting to support each country’s claim. Ancient texts and maps, such as Samguk Sagi (‘History of Three Kingdoms’), the Paldo Chongdo (‘Map of the Eight Provinces’) and the ‘Map of Three Adjoining Countries’ (Sangoku Tsūran Zusetsu), have been dredged up to advance the case of one side or the other. These pieces of “evidence” have tended to be characterised by ambiguities over names, inaccuracies in island locations on early maps, etc, making them problematic and in most cases not particularly helpful in resolving the issue[6].

North Korea’s view of the Dok-do/Takeshima dispute
North Korea (DRK) in 2011 affirmed that the Tok Islets (Pyongyang’s name for Dok-do) is an “inalienable part of the territory of Korea”[7]. But the matter is a diplomatically tricky one for North Korea given that it does not recognise the government of South Korea … despite the depth of its feelings on the issue it does not want to be seen supporting a position taken by its ideological enemies in Seoul. Accordingly it has tended to be fairly cautious to the extent that it has bought into the dispute.

United States’ position on the islets’ dispute
In the late 1940s and again after the outbreak of the Korean War the US military used the Liancourt Islands for bombing practice. From the ratification of the Treaty to San Francisco to after ROK recaptured Dok-do, key figures in the US administration such as John Foster Dulles and Dean Rusk privately concurred with Japan that it had a right to the islets, saying off-the-record that President Syngman Rhee‘s unilateral takeover was an illegal move. Publicly though, the US refused to back the Japanese claim (wanting to avoid getting offside with its new ally ROK)[8]. A policy of strict neutrality on the question of Dok-do V Takeshima continues to be practiced by the current US (Obama) administration.

Economic value of the islets
The two countries contesting Liancourt Rocks have traditionally harvested the area’s rich fishing grounds of squid, crab and mackerel (yielding an estimated 13m tons of fish per year[9]). As well as this there is the attraction of potential gas and oil under its waters. In the early 2000s large hydrocarbon deposits were discovered around the islets. Korea and Australia launched a joint, highly capitalised gas and oil exploration project in the immediate vicinity[10]. Korea and Japan’s demand for new energy resources feeds into the push for control of Dok-do/Takeshima (especially for Japan with its reliance on imported oil).

Japan and ROK’s fundamental disagreement about ownership of the Liancourt Rocks hasn’t shutdown the possibility of cooperation between the two countries in the vital Sea of Japan/East Sea. Back as far as 1965 South Korea and Japan were able to negotiate a Treaty of Basic Relations which sought to normalise their diplomatic relations. The Treaty granted Japan access to the Sea’s fishing grounds and quotas were set on the fish caught by each (provisional zones were introduced in 1998). In 2002 the two countries were again able to reach an agreement on reducing catch quotas to avoid depleting the fish stocks of the Sea[11].

imageAs part of the claim by both sides to be the rightful owner of Liancourt Rocks each have stressed their historic fishing ties to it. Japan traces its fishing connection to 1661 (Korea even earlier), and cites the on-going activities on Takeshima by Japanese fishermen, circa 1900-1935, eg, hunting sea lions (granted licences to do so by the government in Tokyo), gathering seaweed and abalone, to support its case[12]. ROK counters, referencing evidence from Japanese sources (the “Chosun (Korean) Fishing Manuals” written by the Black Dragons, a Shimane-based nationalist organisation). This Japanese guidebook states that Yankodo (Dok-do) was clearly Chosun or Joseon (Korean) territory before the Japanese annexation[13].

The South Korean claim on the Liancourt Rocks rests on several planks. ROK’s continuous physical control of the small island group (62 years to date), whilst not definitive per se, is a strong card in Seoul’s hand. Another plank is the contiguity/closest proximity argument. The disputed islets are closer to recognised sovereign territory of Korea than they are to the nearest recognised sovereign territory … the Liancourts are 157km from Japan’s Oki Islands but only 87.4km from the closest part of South Korea, the island of Ulleung-do. Further strengthening this fact is that Korean scholars have long considered Dok-do to an appendage or “little sister” of the larger Ulleung-do island[14]. That Dok-do can be seen “from Ulleung-do on a clear autumn day, reinforces the linkage”[15].

Jon M Van Dyke, an American international law expert, has argued that the superiority of ROK’s claims to the disputed islands over those of Japan, are such that if Seoul were to agree to take the matter to the ICJ (a path Tokyo has sought for the last 60-plus years!), the Court would almost certainly, based on other historical decisions handed down on international territorial disputes, decide in ROK’s favour. This of course is a big ‘if’ as South Korea has hitherto shown not the slightest sign of willingness to contemplate going this route, and would view this probably as an unnecessary risk. Seoul’s view has unwaveringly been that the dispute is a political one, not a legal one[16].

Van Dyke has pinpointed several weaknesses in Japan’s claim on the disputed territory vis-vís ROK’s. In contrast to Korea’s current possession of Dok-do/Takeshima, Japan’s long period of control of the islets (1905-45) does not advance its current claim – being tainted because it was “wrongful occupation”, illegitimately achieved by force. Van Dyke also notes that Japan has not pressed the question of the viability of its sovereignty prior to 1905, which perhaps could be viewed as an implicit admission by Tokyo of the weaknesses of its pre-20th century claims[17].

Van Dyke further discounts the Japan contention based on the grounds of Terra Nullius. For purposes of tax collection and security Korea at one point implemented a “vacant islands policy” in respect of Dok-do but this was revoked in 1881 and the islets’ population built up again to at least 1,000 by 1890[18]. Van Dyke makes the point that Korea’s minimal occupancy of the islets in the period before and after Japan’s subjugation of Korea is sufficient to establish a valid controlling presence on the part of Korea[19].

Like many of the long-standing island disputes in the region, Takeshima versus Dok-do is a stalemate with no obvious signs of a way forward as long as both sides maintain an entrenched, even intransigent viewpoint. As noted above, Japan and South Korea, fortunately, value their close bilateral relationship which hopefully will ensure that the dispute never escalates to a dangerous level (so far the fall-out has been restricted to a few minor incidents between coast guard vessels and fishing boats)[20]. The status quo suits South Korea as the territorial possessor … Japan, given it has the weaker hand, is unlikely to press the matter beyond a continuation of the symbolic show of discontent, a periodical “drum-beating” of the issue.


❈ Japan-Korea disputation in this stretch of water is rife, being restricted not just to the Liancourt islands themselves – the very name of the sea is a source of disagreement … Japan calls the body of water the “Sea of Japan” (no surprise!), both Koreas conversely call it Donghae (the “East Sea”)
♰ the east islet is known as Dongdu (Korean name) or Higashijima (Japanese name) and the west islet is called Seodu (Korean) or Nishijima (Japanese)
回 a less common name for the islets is the “Hornet Islands”. The coordinates of the Liancourt islets are 131˚52’22″N 37˚14’24″E

⊶ ⊷ ⊸ ⊶ ⊷ ⊸ ⊶ ⊷ ⊸ ⊶ ⊷ ⊸ ⊶ ⊷ ⊶

[1] ‘Liancourt Rocks dispute’, Wikipedia,; ‘A Visual Study of Dokdo and Ancient Territorial Perceptions’, (“Historical Facts about Korea’s Dokdo Islands), www
[2] Japan dispute that this included Takeshima/Dok-do, Justin McCurry, ‘Rocky relations between Japan and South Korea over disputed islands’, The Guardian, (London), 18-Jul 2010
[3] interestingly, the British proposal (suggested to it by NZ), that Japan’s territory and sovereign waters be determined by latitude and longitude, may have resolved the issue at that time, ‘The United States’ Involvement with Dokdo Iskand (Liancourt Rocks): A Timeline of the Occupation and Korean War Era’, (Mark S Lovmo, 2004),
[4] Korea maintains two families on the islets year round with seasonal stays by fishermen from the mainland, ‘A Visual Study of Dokdo and Ancient Territorial Perceptions’, (Historical Facts about Korea’s Dokdo Islands),; ‘Liancourt Islands/Takeshima/Tokdo’, Global Security,
[5] D-J Park & D Chubb, ‘Why Dokdo Matters to Korea’, The Diplomat, (17-Aug 2011,; ‘Liancourt Rocks dispute’, op.cit.
[6] ibid.
[7] ‘N. Korea denounces Japan’s vow to visit island near Dokdo’, Yonhap News Agency, 30-Jul 2011,
[8] Lovmo, op.cit.
[9] Sean Fern, ‘Tokdo or Takeshima? The International Law of Territorial Acquisition in the Japan-Korea International Dispute’, SJEAA, 5(1), Winter 2005
[10] ‘Liancourt Islands/Takeshima/Tokdo’, op.cit.
[11] significantly though, the 1965 Treaty did not mention the disputed islets, Fern, op.cit.
[12] ‘Takeshima: Japan’s Territory’, (Takeshima Information Leaflet),
[13] ‘A Visual Study of Dokdo’, op.cit.
[14] moreover, even in the pre-motorised era of vessels, Dok-do was within two days sailing distance of the Korean mainland, ibid.
[15] Jon M Van Dyke, ‘Legal Issues Relating to Sovereignty over Dokdo and its Maritime Boundary’, Ocean Development and International Law, 38 (2007), www.jonvandyke-doc.pdf
[16] were the matter to go before The Hague, vital errors in judgement made by Japan would hamper its bid for ownership, eg, its failure to raise the islands dispute in the 1960s negotiations over the Basic Relations Treaty was a serious omission on Japan’s part, strategically it needed to keep the issue in the international spotlight. In the event of a resolution a likely outcome would see the maritime boundary drawn equidistance between Ulleung-do and the Oki Islands, as such confirming that Liancourt Rocks falls within the South Korean sphere, ibid
[17] indeed, from Japanese sources alone, significant parts of the early evidence appear to contradict the Japanese viewpoint, eg, maps drawn by Japanese cartographers seem to concede the point that Dok-do belongs to Korea. In a similar vein, the 1877 decree by the Daijō-kan (the Japanese Great Council) stating that Liancourt Rocks are not part of Japan, is a persuasive factor in weakening Japanese claims, ibid
[18] Kiran Kim, ‘Dokdo or Takeshima?’ CLA Journal, 2 (2014),
[19] especially when one takes into consideration how remote, difficult to access and basically ‘uninhabitable’ Dok-do/Takeshima is, Van Dyke, op.cit.
[20] Fern, op.cit.

That Other China Sea Islands Dispute

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

The long-running South China Sea island dispute involving several Southeast Asian states❈ has demanded much of the world news attention recently. In July the International Court of The Hague rejected the territorial claims of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), a judicial decision which the PRC, predictably, refused to recognise. Not far from the location of this seemingly intractable international dispute is another long-running dispute with marked similarities in the East China Sea, involving two of the South China Sea players, China and Taiwan (ROC), along with Japan.

Proximity to disputing parties
Proximity to disputing parties
This dispute is over a small, remote group of uninhibited islands (comprising five islets and three rocks), known variously as the Senkaku Islands回 (Japan), Diàoyú Islands (PRC) or the Pinnacle Islands (ROC). After the Empire of Japan’s defeat in WWII the Senkakus were administered by the US until 1972 as part of the Ryukyus Islands. In that year the Senkaku Islands were returned to Japan under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.

From the early 1970s interest in the Senkakus by outside parties started to be shown. According to Japan, it surveyed the Islands in 1885 and found them uninhibited, and so incorporated them into Japan under the doctrine of terra nullius[1]. Japan affirms this to be the legal title for it’s “valid control” (to use the government’s term) of the Senkaku Islands. Despite this both the PRC and the ROC lodged claims to the islands in 1971. Their interest in such a collection of sparse and barren rocks seems to be linked to the ECAFE (UN Economic Commission for Asia and Far East) report in 1968 which identified the possibility of oil reserves in the area (although in the longer term ROC’s interest in the Pinnacle Islands (Senkakus) seems primarily to do with the Sea’s rich fishing harvest).

China’s (and Taiwan’s) claims for territorial sovereignty rest on a historical argument. PRC views the islands as part of its traditional fishing grounds, administered through the historic Chinese province of Taiwan. Beijing additionally has argued that the Senkaku/Diàoyú Islands were integral to China’s coastal defences against Japanese pirates during the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th centuries). China’s claim also contends that Japan ‘stole’ its sovereignty over the Islands by annexing them in the aftermath of the (First) Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95[2].

Japan, for its part, expressed cynicism over the belatedness of Chinese (and Taiwanese) claims, attributing it to the attraction of the islands as a potential source of oil for China. Access through the East China Sea both to key shipping lanes and to its rich fishing grounds was also noted[3]. These by-products of course were equally-attractive motives to Japan for holding on to the Senkakus.

Successive Japanese governments have rebuffed the Chinese contention that the islands should have been handed over to it after WWII in accordance with the 1943 Cairo Agreement and the 1945 Potsdam Agreement. These agreements decreed that Japan would forfeit territories, eg, Formosa (Taiwan) and Pescadores Islands (Penghu), acquired by Japanese imperial aggression, but Japan has argued that the Senkaku Islands were not mentioned in these documents, not part of Formosa and therefore were not intended to be included under its terms[4].

imageWith no ground being given by either country, the Senkakus conflict simmered on the back-burner for several decades, however in the 2010s the dispute has heated up again. China in particularly has taken a more proactive and aggressive stance. It has directed an increasing number of it’s vessels – both commercial and naval – into the territorial zone claimed by Japan (Taiwan also has launched protest vessels against the Japanese). In 2010 a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese vessels off the islands – resulting in a serious diplomatic issue and a protracted stand-off between Beijing and Tokyo. In 2013 China provocatively declared an Aerial Defence Identification Zone in the vicinity of the islands (ADIZ)[5].

Japan has countered with some provocations of its own. The right-wing Toyko governor, Ishihara, moved to use public funds to purchase the Senkaku Islands from their private owner in 2012, prompting the Japanese government to step in and acquire (ie, effectively to nationalise) three of the islands as a damage control measure. An unmollified China reacted by sailing its government ships including coastguard vessels through Japanese-claimed territorial waters. In 2014 it was announced that students in Japanese classrooms would be taught that the Senkaku Islands are Japanese territories – further angering Beijing[6].

Amrita Jash has attributed China’s combativeness on the Senkaku issue to more than the pursuit of economic interests and maritime security, pinpointing the “emotional significance” to PRC of Diàoyú Tai. Jash argues that the depth of China’s nationalist passions over the islands has its genesis in memories of the humiliation and inferiority felt by the Chinese during the period of Japanese occupation (1930s-40s) which evinced a sort of “victim identity” for China. Such hyper-intense feelings fed by historical insecurity are seen by Jash as currently driving a ‘hawkish’ foreign policy against Japan[7].

The role of the United States in the dispute?
PRC’s perception is that the US sides with the Japanese position over the Senkakus/Diàoyús. The reality of this was made unequivocally clear to Beijing during Barack Obama’s 2014 trip to Japan when the President assured his Japanese hosts that the islands dispute fell “within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty” … (and that) “we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands”. China duly protested, labelling the US-Japan accord “a bilateral arrangement from the Cold War”[8].

Chinese escalation of the conflict and possible long-term outcomes?
In the event of PRC gaining control of the disputed territories a number of threats to each of the players could materialise:

⌲ to Taiwan the idea of Beijing controlling the islands so close to Taiwan (170km to the north) is a worrying geo-strategic prospect, ie, as a Chinese invasion route to recapture Taiwan which Beijing still denies legitimacy to and considers to be a rightful province of mainland China. More immediately important to Taiwan is the concern that Chinese control would deprive it of vital fishing grounds

⌲ to Japan the threat from commercial effects (loss of fishing waters, blocking of trade routes, exclusion from potential oil fields) is very significant, but probably even more concerning to it is the security implications (PRC using the strategically-positioned islands for a military build-up)◑

⌲ the US is not directly part of the disputants but Washington is cognisant of the inherent risk to it from China gaining a dominant hold over the East China Sea, eg, it could in a future, Pacific power play scenario block US fleet activities in the area[9]

8 tiny rocky islets in the middle of a political storm!
8 tiny rocky islets in the middle of a political storm!
With international concern over rising tensions in the East China Sea and the stalemate between China and Japan, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has been suggested as an approach to a solution. Japan, in possession of the disputed territory, would not need to take the initiative, whereas PRC (along with ROC) have the motivation to do so. But China’s recent refusal to accept the ICJ ruling over the South China Sea issue (and having as it appears the weaker case in the Senkaku/Diàoyú dispute), recourse to the ICJ would likely see PRC again reject it’s findings and we would be no closer to a resolution of the matter[10].


❈ China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – all with overlapping or related territorial claims in the sea involving the Paracels Islands, the Spratly Islands, the Pratas Islands and Scarborough Shoal, as well as various disputes over the maritime boundaries of each state
回 Uotsuri-shíma (coordinates: 25˚46’N 123˚31’E) at a mere 4.3 square metres in size is the largest of the islands
◑ a measure of how seriously Tokyo takes the threat from China on this and other contemporary conflicts between the two Asian powerhouses is the record defence budget approved by Prime Minister Abe’s government in late 2015 – US$41.4B
China’s lack of good evidence of historic occupation of the disputed island group seriously undermines its case vis-à-vis Japan

[1] from time to time since 1895 the islands have been populated by Japan and used to harvest albatross feathers and process dried bonito, Tadeshi Ikeda, ‘Getting Senkaku History Right’, The Diplomat, 26-Nov 2013,
2] A Jash, ‘Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute: identity versus territory’, (11-Jan 2016),; S Roy-Chaudhury, ‘The Senkaku Islands Dispute’, International Policy Digest, 1-Aug 2016,
[3] ‘How uninhibited islands soured China-Japan ties’, BBC News, 10-Nov 2014,
[4] ‘The Senkaku Islands’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan,
[5] BBC News, ibid.
[6] ibid.; Justin McCurry, ‘Japan: teachers to call Senkaku and Takeshima islands Japanese territory’, The Guardian, 29-Jan 2014
[7] Jash, op.cit.
[8] Ankit Panda, ‘Obama: Senkakus Covered Under US-Japan Security Treaty’, The Diplomat,, 24-Apr 2014,
[9] Roy-Chaudhury, op.cit.
[10] Ikeda, op.cit.