The 15 Most Hotly Contested Islands In The World


Photo: The National Guard

Given the recent tensions dealing with small islands in the Strait of Hormuz and the South China Sea, it’s time to highlight the current island disputes around the world.They range from the Caribbean to to Croatia to north of Samoa, and some of the competing claims were made centuries ago. 

Falkland Islands

Claims by United Kingdom and Argentina

The Falkland Islands comprise East Falkland, West Falkland and 776 lesser islands.

The capital (and only city) is Stanley (population: 2,115) on East Falkland. The archipelago is territory of the UK, which is responsible for its defence and foreign affairs, but the islands are self-governing.

Portugal, Spain and Britain all claimed to have discovered the islands in the 16th century, and there have been French, British, Spanish and Argentine settlements at various times.

The UK established rule in 1833 and Argentina has disputed the claim ever since, unsuccessfully invading the islands for two months in 1982 in what is unofficially known at the Falklands War.

There are about 3,000 Falkland Islanders, and they are British citizens.

Spratly Islands

Claims by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines

The first contact with the Spratly Islands may have been as early as 600 BCE when people migrated across the South China Sea.

Around the 17th century both China and Vietnam charted and made claims to the stretch of islands, completely unaware that the other had done the same.

Itu Aba Island -- the only inhabitable island and the only one with a freshwater supply -- was claimed as part of French Indochina in 1887, turned into a submarine base by the Japanese during World War II, and placed under the administration of Taiwan in 1946.

Itu Aba has no long term inhabitants but is also claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam because of rich fishing grounds and potentially significant reserves of oil and natural gas.

In 1933 France claimed both the Spratly and Paracel Islands on behalf of its then-colony Vietnam, occupying a number of the islands and building weather stations on two islands.

Since 1945 the islands (other than Itu Aba) have been administrated by China.

Paracel Islands

Claims by China, Taiwan and Vietnam

The Paracel islands are a group of over 30 islets, sandbanks and reefs that sit equidistant to China and Vietnam. They are inhabited by turtles as well as a small number of Chinese troops.

Another of several disputes in the South China Sea, parts of the Paracel Islands were controlled by China and South Vietnam before tensions boiled over in 1974 and a conflict resulted in 71 soldiers being killed.

China has controlled all of the islands since then but Vietnam still disputes the claim.

Liancourt Rocks

Claims by Japan and South Korea

The Liancourt Rocks, known as Dokdo ('solitary island') in Korean and Takeshima ('bamboo island') in Japanese, consist of two main islets and 35 smaller rocks in the Sea of Japan.

A Korean octopus fisherman and his wife are permanent residents on the islets while a small Korean police detachment, administrative personnel, lighthouse staff and the South Korean Coast Guard are stationed in non-permanent supporting positions on the islets.

Both nations claim the island from several hundred years ago. Interestingly, North Korea supports South Korea's claim (despite still technically being at war with them).

Calero Island

Claims by Nicaragua and Costa Rica

Nicaragua and Costa Rica have been disputing the ownership of Calero Island for two centuries, but it's widely considered to be part of Costa Rica.

In November 2010 Nicaragua began dredging around Calero based on borders found on Google Maps, which mistakenly labelled Calero Island as part of Nicaragua.

Nicaragua has refused to withdraw troops from the disputed land despite conceding that it occupied the area only because of the mistake by Google Maps.

In March 2011 The International Court of Justice provisionally ruled that both countries should refrain from maintaining civilians, security forces or police on the island, but that Costa Rica can send civilian teams concerned with environmental matters.

Navassa Island

Claims by U.S. and Haiti

Navassa Island is about 2 square miles and is located 100 miles south of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

It was claimed for the U.S. on September 19, 1857, by sea captain Peter Duncan (even though Haiti had previously claimed it).

The island was rich in guano, so around 1865 the U.S. built mining facilities with barrack housing for 140 contract laborers, houses for supervisors, a blacksmith shop, warehouses and a church.

The island has been uninhabited since the end of World War II.

Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa

Claims by Iran and United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Greater and Lesser Tunbs are two small islands in the Strait of Hormuz that have been claimed by both Persians and Arabs for centuries.

Currently the islands are inhabited mostly by Iranian military.

Iranian President visited the island of Abu Musa last week, becoming the first Iranian head of state to do so since Tehran took over the island 41 years ago.

UAE then recalled its ambassador from Tehran for consultation and canceled a friendly soccer match with Iran, according to Arabian Business News.

Senkaku (Japan)/Diaoyu (China) Islands

Claims by Japan, China and Taiwan

The Japanese government has been in control of Senkaku since 1895 when it formally annexed the islands (except from 1945 to 1972 when they were under U.S. occupation authority), but China claims discovery and control of the islands since the 14th century.

The islands are uninhabited (one is used by the U.S. military for drills) but are surrounded by rich fishing grounds.

Tokyo's governor recently said the city has decided to buy three of the four islands in the group to bolster Japanese claims to the territory.

In 2010 a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese coast guard vessel collided near the islands, setting off a serious diplomatic spat in which Beijing temporarily froze trade and ministerial talks.

Perejil Island

Claims by Spain and Morocco

Perejil Island lies within Moroccan territorial waters, just 220 yards off the Moroccan shore in the Strait of Gibraltar, but has been Spanish territory since 1668.

The small rocky island is sometimes used by local Moroccans as a goat pasture.

In 2002 Morocco sent a dozen Moroccan soldiers to occupy the uninhabited island and Spanish soldiers subsequently evicted the Moroccan soldiers and re-established the Spanish flag without incident. The islet is now deserted but is monitored by both countries.

Machias Seal Island and North Rock

Claims by U.S. and Canada

Machias Seal Island is located in the Gulf of Maine, about 10 miles southeast of Maine and 12 miles southwest of New Brunswick. Both the U.S. and Canada claim ownership to it as well as neighbouring North Rock.

The Canadian Coast Guard staffs a lighthouse on the island (the first one was built by the UK in 1832), and until the 1980s lighthouse keepers would live on the island with their families and receive supplies by sea.

The island is currently designated as the Machias Seal Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary and is managed by the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The U.S. claim does not seem to be very strong as the only time it inhabited the island was in 1918 when it placed marines there (with Canadian consent) for a few months to protect the Bay of Fundy from German U-boat attacks. Citizens of Maine have made claims, but the state of Maine has also referred to it as being owned by Canada.

Kuril Islands

Claims by Japan and Russia

In their first officially established relations, Russia and Japan agreed in 1855 that Japan owned the islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri. But Russia invaded the islands in 1945 and expelled the Japanese inhabitants.

Soviet forces have administrated the islands ever since, despite sovereignty claims by Japan (which calls them the Northern Territories).

In 1951 the San Francisco Peace Treaty stipulated that Japan had to give up all claims to the islands, but it didn't explicitly recognise the Soviet Union's claim. Japan argues that some of the islands aren't part of the Kuril Islands so they aren't covered by the treaty.

Island of Vukovar and Island of Šarengrad

Claims by Croatia and Serbia

Both the Island of Šarengrad (formed in 1909) and the Island of Vukovar are located on the Danube river on the border of Croatia and Serbia.

When Yugoslavia existed, both islands were part of the Croatia. But during the Croatian War of Independence (1991-95), the Serbian militia occupied the islands.

In 2004 Serbia withdrew its army from the islands but replaced soldiers with Serbian police. Croatian citizens can go to the islands, but Croatian land ownership is not recognised by Serbia.

In 2009 the islands were opened up for recreational purposes, but Serbia still claims the islands because they are closer to the Serbian coast.

According to an internationally recognised border, the islands are part of the Croatian state.

Imia (Greece)/Kardak (Turkey) Island

Claims by Greece and Turkey

Imia/Kardak is a pair small uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea that sit between Greek island chains and the west coast of Turkey.

On December 27, 1995, the Turkish Foreign Ministry officially declared the islets Turkish territory. The next month warships from both Turkey and Greece sailed to the islets as special forces from Greece landed on the east islet and special forces from Turkey landed on the west islet, both undetected, to raise their respective flags.

The immediate military threat was defused primarily by late U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, who spoke with officials of both countries over the phone during the final hours of the crisis.

Turkey has laid parallel claims to a larger number of other islets in the Aegean that are considered to be of 'undetermined sovereignty' by Turkey, but are regarded as indisputably Greek by Greece.

Glorioso Islands, Bassas da India and Juan de Nova Island

Claims by France and Madagascar

The Glorioso Islands became a French possession in 1892, but were first were named and settled in 1880 by Frenchman Hippolyte Caltaux (who established a coconut plantation). Today the archipelago is a nature reserve with a meteorological station garrisoned by the French Foreign Legion.

In 1897 France took control of Bassas da India, an uninhabited atoll known as a shipwreck hazard. In 1968 France placed it under the administration of a commissioner residing in Réunion, which is an island that is the outermost region of the European Union that serves as an overseas department of France.

Juan de Nova Island (which is also a wreck risk) came under French control in 1897 and was exploited for guano deposits in the 20th century before being abandoned during World War II. It is considered an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International because it supports up to 100,000 breeding pairs of Sooty Terns.

Madagascar claims sovereignty over the territories.

Swains Island

Claims by U.S. and New Zealand

Swains Island is an atoll north of Samoa in the Pacific Ocean that is considered an unincorporated unorganized territory of the U.S. and is administered by American Samoa. It is part of the Tokelau chain, which is territory of New Zealand.

Swains Island has a population of 37 Tokelauans who harvest the island's coconuts.

In 1856 American Eli Hutchinson Jennings claimed to have received the title to the atoll from Captain Turnbull of the UK and joined a community of Swains with his Samoan wife. He set up a coconut plantation and the Jennings family subsequently ruled Swains Island virtually independent of any outside authority from 1856 until 1925, when the island came under the jurisdiction of American Samoa.

On March 25, 1981, New Zealand confirmed U.S. sovereignty over Swains Island in the Treaty of Tokehega, but a 2006 referendum referred to Swains Island as part of Tokelau (i.e. New Zealand).

Most island disputes deal with natural beauty and resources...

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