National borders and international disputes

“What is mine is mine, what is yours is mine too”.  Nowhere does this seem more true than in the case of international borders.  The list of countries with territorial claims on a neighbouring state is long.  Often, border disputes have led to skirmishes, even full-scale wars and conquests.

Historically, the spoils of war belong to the victor.   The worst recent example of this is the territorial settlement imposed by the victorious Anglo-French alliance on a defeated Germany after the First World War. She was deprived of 13 percent of her territory (40,000 square kilometres), home to seven million people.

Following the German defeat and Soviet victory in the Second World War,Russia annexed Eastern Prussia from Germany, besides regaining Western Ukraine fromPoland.  Being on the winning side,Poland was duly compensated by being moved approximately 120 kilometres further west into what had been Germany.

In 1939, as tension was building towards the Second World War, the Soviet Union invaded little Finland to its north.  The Finns put up a stiff resistance, but lost one-tenth of their territory for good.

Two of the worst examples of territorial aggrandizement in modern times are the occupation of Mexican territory by theUnited Statesand of Bolivian territory by her neighbours.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War (1846–1848) awarded all lands north of the Rio Grande to theUnited States.  By the terms of the treaty, Mexico ceded to the United States two-fifths of its territory and received an indemnity of $15 million.

Bolivia lost great slices of territory to three neighboring countries. Several thousand square kilometers of land, 315 kilometres of coastline and its outlet to the Pacific Ocean were taken by Chile after the War of the Pacific (1879–1884). In 1903, a piece of Bolivia’s Acre Province, rich in rubber, was ceded toBrazil. And in 1938, after losing the Chaco War of 1932–1935 to Paraguay, Bolivial ost 160,000 square kilometres of territory.  Today’s Bolivia is a land-locked country, a mere three-fifths of its original size.

Hoping to take advantage of the disarray in Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979, Saddam Hussain invaded Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province in 1980 and renamed it Arabistan, only to be thrown back after an eight year-long war. Two years later, to salvage his pride and wipe off his debts in one stroke, Saddam occupied his defenceless, oil-rich neighbour, Kuwait, declaring it to be Iraq’s 27th province.  That venture, too, proved to be a bloody and costly fiasco.

India and China went to war in 1962 after Indian border patrols discovered that her “brotherly” neighbour (“Hindi-Chinee bhai bhai”) had quietly taken possession of thousands of square kilometers of territory in the remote Aksai Chin area of Kashmir. India lost the war and some pride too. China continues to be in de facto possession of 20 percent of Kashmir.  This includes over 8,000 square kilometres ceded to China in 1963 by Pakistan, which wisely took advantage of the Indo-Chinese conflict to seal its alliance with that country by donating a piece of strategic real estate.

Both India and Pakistan do not accept the Line of Control in Kashmir as a permanent border between them. India regards the Chinese presence in Aksai Chin as illegal and Chinadoes not recognise the border along the McMahon Line with India’s northeast. Afghanistan disputes the Durand Line with Pakistan.  The two countries fought border skirmishes in the early 1960s.

China and Russia clashed over a disputed border on the Ussuri river in 1969. Libya disputes its borders with all its neighbours and had occupied Chadian territory for many years. Armenia has seized about 10 percent of Azerbaijani territory (Nagorno-Karabakh) inhabited by ethnic Armenians.

In 1976, Morocco conspired with Mauritania to divide and annex the Western Sahara as soon as Spain granted it independence.  Three years later, when Mauritania withdrew its forces because of guerilla warfare led by the Polisario Front,Morocco helped itself to the rest of theWestern Sahara.  Thus, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic has the distinction of being the world’s only stillborn country – dead at birth.

Cambodia, on the other hand, has the distinction of shrinking in peacetime.  According to reports coming from there, all three of Cambodia’s neighbours, but particularlyVietnam, are slowly creeping into Cambodian territory, having moved the border at some points by as much as 15 kilometres.

The former “Father King”, Norodom Sihanouk, has commented that the stone border markers withVietnamhad legs and kept walking deeper into Cambodian territory.  In late March Sihanouk sent an open letter to the governments of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand accusing them of “nibbling away” at Cambodian territory.

Nations, national borders, passports and visas are relatively recent concepts.  For example, until the middle of the 19th century,Germany was a conglomeration of dozens of states and principalities. British India included hundreds of princely states of various sizes with their own rulers, spread over two-fifths of the subcontinent.  Kashmir and Hyderabad were the largest and best-known of them. Pakistan inherited a number of princely states, namelyKalat,Bahawalpur, Swat, Hunza and Chitral. 

They were vestiges of a bygone era when there were neither nations nor countries as we now know them.  Land belonged not to nations or people but to rulers.  Territories were bought and sold and could even be given as a gift. Principalities merged as a result of matrimonial alliances. The states of Monaco, San Marino and Leichtenstein in Europe survive from that era.  

Russia sold Alaskato the United States in 1867 for $7 million.  The purchase was approved by the US Senate by just one vote because, at the time, many Americans regarded it as a bad deal.  Few Pakistanis know that Gwadar, the country’s up-coming second port, which is regarded as a strategic and economic asset by the government, belonged to the Sultan of Oman until 1958. It was purchased by the Pakistani government for Rs 90 million.

Colonization by European countries created empires where kings, rulers, princes, potentates and chiefs once held sway over pre-modern societies.  Countries and nations as we now know them emerged as a result of decolonization.  It is worth pointing out that the United Nations, which now has 191 member-states, had just 51 at the time of its founding in 1945.

Is it possible in the current era of nationalism – with its dogma of “every inch of the motherland is sacred” – even to imagine such deals as Gwadar orAlaska?  Leave alone selling land for money, even the hint of ceding land for peace, friendship and security has the potential for toppling governments. 

Jewish extremists in Israel are violently opposed to the full return of Gaza to the Palestinians even by a government that has served their interests very well. Any mutually-acceptable, realistic deal on Kashmir byIndia and Pakistanis sure to be denounced as a sell-out by virtually all opposition parties in both countries.  Such is the nature of populist politics that this will happen regardless of which parties are in power and which in opposition.  

But, then, successive governments in the two countries have only themselves to blame for raising national expectations to levels that now prevent them from achieving a realistic solution to a territorial dispute.

(Published in Daily Times, 7 June 2005)

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