Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 6)

Dependencies as Quasi-Countries?

       We now come to the most important acknowledged gap between the world model (based on theoretically equivalent national units) and the world map: the remaining colonial and post-colonial dependencies. Most of these territories are so small that they are a challenge to depict when mapping at the global scale. The CIA cartographers resort to some serviceable if subtle expedients. Where recognized states (including the Vatican and Kosovo) are labeled in all capital letters, dependencies are not; in addition, the names of their sovereign superiors are noted (in parentheses). For example, under Greenland one finds (DENMARK); under Curaçao, (NETH).[1]

       Still, one size does not necessarily fit all. One of the most stubborn challenges to accurate mapping of dependencies is the need to distinguish among the varied relationships they have with their metropoles. The situation of the U.S. commonwealths, Puerto Rico or the Northern Mariana Islands, for example, is not the same as that of the “unincorporated and unorganized territory” called American Samoa.[2] The key variable in metropole-dependency relations is supposedly the degree of self-government. Although difficult to quantify, this metric matters a great deal to the United Nations, which maintains an evolving list of non-self-governing territories that are supposed to be on a trajectory toward full autonomy, independence, or union with their controlling power.[3] Critics note that the decision to include or exclude a given dependency from this UN list reflects political considerations more than measurable self-governance (although at least it represents an attempt to draw distinctions). I take a similar tack here, cataloguing some of the inconsistencies and quirks in the way the CIA maps dependencies around the world. Close reading turns out once again to be an effective tool for exposing the unstated priorities—indeed, the worldview—of the map’s creators.

       Some of the world’s not-quite-countries are classified vaguely by the U.S. State Department as “areas of special sovereignty.” On both the State Department list and the CIA map, such places are lumped together with formal dependencies, making it difficult to differentiate the two categories. The two most prominent cases in the former category are Hong Kong and Macao—China’s Special Administrative Regions (SARs)—which retain their own legal systems, immigration bureaucracies, and currencies, but fall under the sovereign sway of the People’s Republic. On the CIA map, the SARs’ status is clearly marked through the tag “Special Administrative Region,” the only such labels on the map. These territories differ from other global dependencies in that their subordinate position derives from prior colonization by a country other than the one to which they currently belong. During the transition from one overarching sovereign (Britain/Portugal) to another (China), both were allowed to retain elements of their previous governmental apparatus. But that situation is scheduled to end in the mid-21st century, and already the SARs are being harshly subjected to the power of Beijing. Given their liminal status, Hong Kong and Macao are perhaps best viewed as temporary quasi-countries. That said, Hong Kong appears be in the process of forging a national consciousness of its own,[4] as seen in the heated clashes of 2014 and 2019. As for the other areas of special sovereignty recognized by the State Department, the map either leaves them off or marks them simply as dependencies. For example, while the CIA World Factbook specifies that the British military bases on Cyprus (Dhekelia and Akroteri) are areas of “special sovereignty,” neither figures in the CIA’s world political map.[5]


       If such special zones and dependencies generally remain hard to see on the map, they do show up on various tabulations and charts. One influential taxonomy is that of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which provides two-letter “country codes” for all kinds of territorial entities (including some with no human inhabitants).[6] The ISO Alpha-2 codebook reserves “GS” for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (with an estimated year-round population of 16), and “TF” for the uninhabited “French Southern Territories.”[7] In the ISO’s reckoning, the terrestrial globe is divided into 249 discrete, coded territories, all of which are formally classified at the same hierarchical level.[8] Such a schema evidently proves serviceable for the global organization of the internet, where the issue of sovereignty is largely moot.

            Although increasingly used in pull-down menus on websites and in the flag-emojis employed in text messaging,[9] the ISO country-classification scheme is seldom encountered in its pure form in general tabulations of geographical information. But in data tables provided by the World Bank, the IMF, and the CIA, populated dependencies are increasingly finding their place alongside sovereign states.

            One might wonder whether dependencies are worth such extended consideration as we have given them here. After all, little attention is accorded to them in the standard world model (or in the mainstream media, for that matter). Most are treated as vanishing vestiges of bygone times—colonial holdovers fated eventually to dissolve into union with their metropoles or gain independence. In the vast literature on the British empire, the remaining territories are typically dismissed in a sentence or two. For Niall Ferguson, “The British Empire is long dead; only flotsam and jetsam now remain.”[10] Simon Winchester, one of the few popular authors who does focus on imperial remnants, highlights the “lack of caring [that] seems to characterize Britain’s dealings with her final imperial fragments.”[11] One could say the same of the United States, where imperial holdings have always been downplayed; those that remain constantly slip out of the national consciousness. As David Immerwahr argues in How to Hide an Empire, “One of the truly distinctive features of the United States’ empire is how persistently ignored it has been.”[12]

       Like Immerwahr, I believe there are good reasons not to ignore the world’s dependent territories when thinking about geopolitical space. For one thing, although most are small in terms of land-area, many are situated in highly strategic places, and collectively they confer control over a vast expanse of sea-space. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of French Polynesia alone encompasses almost five million square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. This makes a huge difference for the size of France. By conventional land-based reckoning, there are 40 countries on the planet larger than France. But if one includes maritime holdings, France jumps to the sixth position, trailing only Russia, the United States, Australia, Brazil, and Canada.[13] Island possessions also allow metropolitan countries to project military power across much of the world. As Immerwahl bluntly puts it—tipping his hat to Ian Fleming—“islands are instruments of world domination.”[14]

       Moreover, while dependencies may be remnants of an earlier order, that does not necessarily mean they are headed for extinction any time soon. On the contrary, most seem to be here to stay—often owing to the wishes of their own residents. In the ironic endgame of European imperialism, many territories that were once economically exploited are now subsidized, and their residents have no desire to be cut loose. Valuing their connections to Europe, the inhabitants of places like the Dutch Caribbean have rejected independence in repeated referenda. Of the six Dutch holdings in the area, half have opted to become “constituent countries” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while the rest have elected the status of “special municipality” within the same state.[15] On the CIA’s map, the former are marked as dependencies, whereas the latter are not. (Compare the depiction of Aruba and Bonaire on the second map below. The label “Bonaire” is italicized, marking it as an island rather than a polity, while the label for the sovereign state to which it belongs, “NETH,” is not placed in parentheses, marking it as an integral part of the Netherlands.)

       To be sure, strong movements for independence have arisen in some former colonies. A secession movement in French Polynesia commands considerable support on some islands, and independence referenda in New Caledonia in 2018 and 2020 received heavy backing from the indigenous Melanesian Kanak population. Although the latter two plebiscites did not pass, their narrow failure was due not only to the resistance of French settlers but also to the newer Polynesian and Asian communities.[16] The current official designation of New Caledonia — “a sui generis collectivity” — says much about the uncertain nature of geopolitical affiliation in the remaining vestiges of Western overseas empires.

      Local residents are not the only party with a vested interest in perpetuating para-states. Wealthy individuals from across the world profit from the shadowy status of dependencies like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, which enjoy British security without being subject to British corporate and tax law. The Cayman Islands, with a grand total with a grand total of 57,000 residents, is home to a staggering 100,000 corporations, nearly a fifth of which are domiciled in a single five-story building called Ugland House.[17] Vast sums of money stream through this and other non-sovereign financial centers, arguably at great cost to the global economy. According to one 2014 report, “$7.6 trillion, or 8 percent of individual financial wealth …, is held in offshore tax havens, resulting in $190 billion in lost annual tax revenue for governments.”[18] Not surprisingly, private interests have joined forces with the governments of these islands to maintain the status quo, resisting British and international efforts to reign in their shady financial practices.[19] In short, despite their small size, dependencies play an outsized role in the global economy.

[1] Incongruously, however, the French overseas departments of Reunion, Mayotte, Martinique, Guadalupe, and Guiana were portrayed in the same manner until 2019, as if they were mere possessions rather than integral parts of France. To this day Mayotte, another French overseas department, is not uniformly treated as an integral part of France. Although it is portrayed in such a manner on the CIA world map, on the CIA regional map of Africa it is depicted instead as “administered by France claimed by Comoros.”

[2] In formal terms, the former designation “broadly describes an area that is self-governing under a constitution of its adoption and whose right of self-government will not be unilaterally withdrawn by Congress,” whereas the latter term designates only “an area over which the Constitution has not been expressly and fully extended by the Congress.”). These quotations are found in: 7 FAM 1120


(CT:CON-429;   01-03-2013)
(Office of Origin: CA/OCS/L

[3] “Non-Self-Governing Territories,” United Nations and Decolonization (Official United Nations Document):  Significantly, “unorganized” American Samoa appears on this roster but the Northern Mariana Islands, formally a commonwealth, does not.

[4] See “HK Youth Shunning ‘Chinese’ as their National Identity: A Survey Finds That 8.7% of the City’s Young People Find Their Hong Kong Identity ‘Absolutely Incompatible’ with Being ‘Chinese,’” By Kent Ewing. Asia Times, April 19, 2018.

[5] One problem here is the failure of the U.S. Department of State, and most international organizations as well, to differentiate dependencies from “areas of special sovereignty” (see “Dependencies and Areas of Special Sovereignty,” US Department of State. The CIA World Factbook does specify that each of the British bases on Cyprus count as an “area of special sovereignty” (see

and  Hong Kong and Macao are likewise usually reckoned as “areas of special sovereignty.”

Other places that are sometime classified as “areas of special sovereignty” include Finland’s autonomous Åland Islands and Norway’s dependency of Svalbard (see The U.S. Department of State, however, includes only the latter in its list of “dependencies and areas of special sovereignty.”

More problematic, the same source incorrectly includes French overseas departments in this list, while noting that, “French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte and Reunion are first-order administrative divisions of overseas France, and are therefore not dependencies or areas of special sovereignty. They are included in this list only for the convenience of the user.” Their inclusion, we suspect, generates more confusion than convenience for “the user.”

[6] See International Organization for Standardization, Country Codes ISO 3166:

[7] Technically speaking, these are ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 codes.

[8] At the next level down in the spatial hierarchy, ISO 3166-2 provides codes for the main subdivisions of the larger of these “countries,” such as India’s Uttar Pradesh [IN-UP], with a population of more than 200 million

[9] See Tim Whitlock’s webpage on this issue:

[10] Ferguson 2004, p. 358.

[11] Winchester 2004, p. 346.

[12] Immerwarh 2018, p. 18.

[13] See the data tables found in Fishery Management:

[14] Immerwahl 2019, p. 340.

[15] “Dutch Caribbean,” in Dutch Caribbean Legal Portal:

Although determined to retain their ties with the Netherlands, the residents of the two largest islands, Aruba and Curaçao, are equally adamant that they remain cut-off from each other, tied to the metropole through separate formal relations. As Arend Lijphart (1980, p. 191) notes, “during the colonial period, the Arubans often resented the overbearing administration of their island from Curaçao more than Dutch colonialism itself… .”

[16] See “New Caledonia Narrowly Rejects Independence from France in Historic Referendum,” by Stephen Dziedzic and Prianka Srinivasan, ABC News, November 4, 2018. But with more than 56 percent of the voters rejecting independence, the rejection of independence was perhaps not as narrow as the headline indicates. See also “The French Election in the Pacific,” by Grant Wyeth, The Diplomat, May 3, 2017.

In the 2020 independence referendum, however, support for remaining a dependency of France dropped to 53 percent. See “’No’ Vote in New Caledonia Independence Referendum a Pyrrhic Victory for Loyalists,” by Denise Fisher. The Strategist (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), October 6, 2020.

[17] “House of Nineteen Thousand Corporations,” by Joshua E. Keating. Foreign Policy, January 24, 2012:

See also, “The Cayman Islands: Home to 100,000-Companies and the £8.50 Packet of Fish Fingers,” by Jaques Peretti, The Guardian, January 18, 2016:

[18] “The Geography of Financial Secrecy,” by Uri Friedman, The Atlantic, April 9, 2016: Admittedly, not all of this money is held in non-sovereign off-shore banking centers, but a great deal of it is.

Intriguingly, the concept of “off-shore banking” originated with some of Europe’s most venerable geopolitical incongruities, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. As crown dependencies, Jersey, Guernsey, and Man are not subject to the laws of the United Kingdom, but they do shelter beneath its protective blanket, as we shall explore in Chapter Three.

[19] In 2019, for example, “the leaders of the British Overseas Territories presented a united front … against what they all see as the creeping neo-colonialism of the UK.” See “BOTs Unite Over ‘Modern Colonialism’ Threat.” Cayman News Service, June 27, 2019.


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