Feuds hit these unscepter'd isles: All over the world, countries quarrel over specks on the map. Andrew Marshall reports

SOVEREIGNTY is a funny thing. It leads countries to behave in quite the most irrational way, laying claim to specks of territory hundreds of miles from anywhere without any people at all. But it is not so funny when mineral rights worth billions of dollars are at stake. Nor are small wars over distant islands so amusing when they cost hundreds of lives.

In the Spratly islands, a combustive mixture of oil, national pride and strategic influence is threatening to explode into open war between six powers with conflicting claims. China and Vietnam each claim them all, while Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines claim part, and all save Brunei have troops there. 'They are the maritime equivalent of Bosnia,' said Gerald Blake, of Durham University's International Boundaries Research Unit. 'It is the single most dangerous dispute.'

Peking precipitated the flare-up by moving more troops on to one of the islands in defence of its claim. China and Vietnam have both awarded oil exploration contracts.

This is only one of a series of possible island flashpoints now that superpower influence is waning and regional powers are flexing their muscles. On the map we illustrate two dozen. Some are dormant, others resolved, but many continue to simmer, threatening to erupt in armed conflict.

In most cases the islands are uninhabited or have tiny populations, often predominantly military. Some have strategic importance because they dominate important waterways. Others bring the promise of wealth - in 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea legitimised 200-mile maritime economic zones.

Oil is at stake in the conflict between Bahrain and Qatar over the Hawar islands, which resurfaced in April when Qatar extended its territorial waters.

Mineral reserves are also involved in other disputes, potentially including the Falklands, where the intertwining claims of Britain and Argentina go back centuries, well before the foundation of the modern Argentinian state.

This dispute has also become bogged down in national pride, with regular military incidents culminating in the Argentinian invasion of 1982. Subsequently, the two sides have come to an accommodation, including co-operation over the region's rich fisheries. But Britain's decision to replace ageing Phantom fighters on the islands with Tornados shows that vigilance is not being dropped.

Fish have been a growing source of conflict in maritime disputes in the past two decades, precipitating tensions between Canada and France over the tiny French islands of St Pierre et Miquelon off the Canadian coast. These islands, home to a thriving smuggling trade during the Prohibition era, are entirely dependent on fishing.

The UN convention excludes 'rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own'. Some of these islands cannot really be considered anything more. Certainly, that was the Danish view of Britain's claim to Rockall, an outcrop in the Atlantic claimed in 1955 by the Royal Navy. In those days, no one had any thought for the sea-bed resources. But Iceland, Ireland and Denmark all dispute the 200-mile zone around Rockall. In 1985, to assert Britain's claim, a former Special Air Service member spent 40 days in a box bolted to the rock.

These disputes enlist all the panoply of nationalism, no matter how absurd. They trace their origins to voyages of discovery centuries ago, but for each one there are as many versions of the past as there are claimants. Since the first landings, most of the islands have seen dozens of invasions, counter-invasions, flags raised and lowered and plaques placed to commemorate ownership.

The end of colonial rule brought one wave of new disputes, in the Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Six are rows between France and Britain, which both retain networks of islands, and post-colonial states; these are the coaling stations and fortresses of maritime empires, now often home to military installations.

For 50 years, many claims and counter-claims were submerged by the hegemony of the United States and the Soviet Union, and many of the sovereignty battles we now face are the result of the evaporation of superpower domination.

The most potentially explosive disputes are in the Gulf, a flashpoint since Britain left in 1971, and the Pacific, where the decline of the Soviet Union and the departure of the United States from its Philippine bases has created a vacuum.

The resurgence of the argument between Russia and Japan over islands seized by Moscow at the end of the Second World War shows the complexity of these disputes. Russia claims that by signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty Japan gave up all claim to the Kurile islands. Japan says the San Francisco treaty is not relevant since Russia did not sign it, and that in any case, the disputed islands are not part of the Kuriles.

There are ways to sort out these conflicts without loss of face or resources; everyone can gain. A dispute between Argentina and Chile was successfully mediated by the Vatican; the Aland islands, home to a Swedish-speaking population, are peacefully part of Finland because of sensible policies in Helsinki. 'It shows that ways towards resolution of these problems can be found,' Mr Blake said. The Falklands dispute also seems to be moving this way.

But nationalism still holds the ring in most of the other disputes. The language of flags and plaques translates only too easily into rockets and rifles.

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone