By Pier Alexandre Lemaire (translated by Jacob Leon). Originally published on 2013/04/07

The “Islanders” of the Falklands were called to a referendum on the 10th and 11th of March, centering on the archipelago’s continued association with the United Kingdom. The vote yielded unsurprising results, given that asking a crowd of Brits whether they think they ought to remain British smacks somewhat of an exercise in the absurd. This is however rather irrelevant when this affair is regarded from the point of view of diplomacy rather than democracy. A move which has played into a conflict taking place between China and Japan an ocean away .

The question of the Falklands has been a bone of contention between Argentina and the United Kingdom for nearly two centuries when the colonization of the archipelago’s was first undertaken by the British in 1833. Today the islands are home to 2841 civilians  and 1300 soldiers, not counting the 500 000 sheep who’s company they keep. The capital, Port Stanley, sits at about 480 km from Argentinian shores and 14000 km from the white cliffs of the Metropolis.

In 1988, the discovery of oil reserves with an estimated value of 8 billion barrels reignited tensions between Argentina and the United Kingdom. A development which lead to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization to issue numerous exhortations to both nations to come to the negotiating table to discuss rights to the islands. The announcement of a referendum on the political future of the islands brought the Argentinian ambassador to London Alicia Castro to declare:

The referendum is utterly meaningless from the perspective of international law. There exist 40 resolutions by the UN demanding the opening of negotiations between the United Kingdoms and Argentina. Thus this referendum is the result of a strategy which has as its goal to avoid opening talks.

The British MP George Galloway has also called on his government to produce proof of real intent in regards to the Falklands referendum. According to him, the government’s obstinacy on the issue stems from an old imperial reflex that he sees as incredibly detrimental to future relations between his nation and those of South America . He reminds us that every member of the Union of South American Nations  (UNASUR) has denounced the referendum, indicating its insignificance in actual political legitimacy. “ We are prejudicing fatally our interests and our reputation in Latin America by continuing by continuing to attempt to hold onto this appendage of colonial rule” Galloway declared, advocating instead a program of shared sovereignty.

On March 11 however, the question of the referendum took a turn which has brought the relevance of this question to parties unconnected to the Islanders and their would-be countrymen in Britain and Argentina, when the Chinese minister of foreign affairs Hua Chunying stated that “China supports Argentina’s claim to the Islands and expects both sides to resolve the issue through dialogue in accordance with the law.” This Chinese intervention is not however a move to improve Sino-Argentinian relations. The true target seems to be one an ocean away from the British Argentinian issue. China’s aim is to force a dialogue with Japan on the question of the Senkaku-Diaoyu archipelago, a current holding of the Japanese government which China has long claimed rights to the islands as an integral part of its territories.

The Senkaku-Diaoyu debate shares a number of interesting features with the case of the Falklands as both controversies arose as consequences of colonialism. And while China supports the Argentinian position, Japan, in an attempt to defend its claim to the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands, has employed a rhetoric familiar to the Thatcher playbook of the 1980s during the war in the Falklands.

It was in this vein that on the 28th of February the Japanese Prime Minister Abe made the following declaration: “Our national interests have been immutable. They lie in making the seas which are the foundation of our nation’s existence, completely open, free and peaceful.”

Ultimately, the impotence of this referendum must be noted. Argentina’s position, though once only regionally important, now backed up by China, one of the most influential  members of the UN Security Council, can no longer be ignored. As it stands the only hope of resolving these two longstanding conflicts in the long term is to be found only in dialogue. Despite any legitimacy of rule that might be accorded to Japan and the UK, the fate of these Islands, remnants of an era marred by imperialism, must be placed in the hands of international law. Only by this method will Sino-Japanese and British-Argentinian relations be brought closer to complete stability.

Dis­claimer: This art­icle was ori­gin­ally pub­lished as “The Disputed Archipelagos: Falklands and Senkaku-Diaoyu on April 2, 2013 on The Polit­ical Bouil­lon, EST cooper­a­tion partner. Original article: Les archipels de la discorde

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