Future Atlas has an interesting new post on a campaign for the recognition of South Sudan—one that petitions not a government but rather Facebook to acknowledge the new country. The same post also discusses the problematic nature of the U.S. Postal Service’s “drop down” geographical menu, which includes such obscure places as the tiny Spanish exclave of Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, yet excludes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In regard to the international position of South Sudan, it is notable that many countries are not given official recognition. I am not surprised by the withholding of recognition by the Venezuelan-led ALBA block in Latin America, but I am perplexed by the fact that such countries as Thailand, Malaysia, and Georgia are in the same situation. It is also notable that Sudan was actually the first country to grant recognition, followed later on the same day by Egypt, Kenya, and Germany. The U.S., along with many other countries, gave recognition a day later. Several non-official countries, including Transnistria, have officially recognized the new state as well.
As noted yesterday, Taiwan is recognized as the legitimate government of “China” by some two dozen countries. Most are small states in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and Central America. Taiwan has had no success in securing or maintaining recognition by other Asian countries. Most Asian states are too large to be swayed by aid incentives—and too close to China to deny Beijing’s power. But Taiwan is also disadvantaged in its quest for recognition by the fact that it claims not just the whole of China but parts of Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Burma – as well as Mongolia in its entirely (see map). Officially, Taiwan maintains that all territories controlled by China at the time of the 1911 revolution are rightfully its own.
Despite its formal claims, Taiwan has bent to the demands of reality to recognize Mongolia’s independence. In 2002, it opened an informal embassy in Mongolia, officially called the “Taipei Trade and Economic Representative Office in Ulaanbataar.” It simultaneously excluded Mongolia from the purview of its Mainland Affairs Council, in effect recognizing Mongolia’s sovereignty. As a result, Mongolians wanting to visit Taiwan now have to obtain visas, which were not necessary so long as Taipei regarded Mongolia as one of its (temporarily) lost provinces. Still, Taiwan has never formally dropped its constitutional claims to Mongolia. The situation remains ambiguous to say the least.
Nonetheless, Taiwan and Mongolia have developed reasonably close relations. As a sign of friendship, Taiwan recently gave Mongolia a three-story high portrait of Genghis Khan, made out of 437,000 mosaic tiles, based on a rare portrait of the world-conqueror held in Taipei’s National Palace Museum. But the potential for discord has not vanished. In 2008, a Hong Kong-based company posted a map on its website showing Mongolia as part of China (see map above); when Mongolia protested, China’s embarrassed government responded by claiming that the original map had been made in Taiwan. Whatever its provenance, the cartographer who made this map was geographically challenged. The label attached to the independent country reads “Inner Mongolia,” which actually refers to an autonomous region within China itself, rather than “Outer Mongolia,” the term that was used for Mongolia proper when it was part of the Chinese empire.
On March 15, 2010, a number of newspapers announced that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou would visit his country’s allies in the South Pacific: Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, Tuvalu, and Solomon Islands. Such headlines were doubly wrong. The region specified is not exactly in the South Pacific, and the countries mentioned are not exactly allies of Taiwan.
To be sure, much of the territory of the six countries on Ma’s itinerary is in the South Pacific, but roughly 40 percent actually lies in the North Pacific (see map). This minor error is extremely common; Palau and the Marshall Island (along with the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and the Northern Marianas) are almost always conceptualized as being in the South Pacific, despite the fact that they are entirely north of the Equator that divides the ocean into its northern and southern halves. This unmoored usage of the term “south” stems from a time when the entire Pacific was called the South Sea (or Mer du Sud; see map above), referencing the fact that mariners usually entered the ocean from the south, sailing around the tip of South America.
Additionally, regardless of where they are situated, it is not quite accurate to describe these countries as allies of Taiwan. An ally, according to the common definition, is a “state formally cooperating with another for military or other purposes.” It is difficult to imagine Nauru, a mined-out semi-wasteland of eight square miles and fourteen thousand people, coming to the aid of Taiwan for military or any other purposes. The relationship between these countries and Taiwan is actually one of clientage rather than alliance. In essence, Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Palau, and Solomon Islands sell their diplomatic recognition to Taiwan in exchange for aid. Taiwan thereby gains a small measure of international legitimacy, while these small Pacific countries gain much needed financial resources. A couple of them have switched their recognition between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China on several occasions, rewarding the more generous patron with their acknowledgement. Nor are they alone in the practice; Taiwan maintains the diplomatic recognition of 23 countries in total.
Nauru was once a rich little country with vast phosphate deposits. But the mines have been played out and the trust fund looted, putting Nauru in a desperate situation. Its only real resource now is diplomatic, based on its status as a recognized sovereign state. In 2009, it received $50 million from Russia in exchange for recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such recognition may seem to mean little in practice, but it evidently has value.
South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country located in what the United States and most of the international community regards as Georgian territory. It has functioned as an autonomous client state of Russia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. When Georgia made moves to reclaim South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, Russia invaded and defeated Georgia, and then officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent state. Russia’s diplomatic recognition of the breakaway region was in part done in protest against the recognition of the independence of Kosovo (formerly part of Serbia) by the United States and most European countries.
Russia is now attempting to bolster its diplomatic position by encouraging other countries to recognize South Ossetia. Nicaragua was the first to sign on, followed by Venezuela. In mid-December, 2009, South Ossetia gained another political partner: the tiny Pacific country of Nauru. Informed sources claim that Russia essentially purchased such recognition with a $50 million economic aid package. Nauru, once one of the world’s richest counties on a per capita basis, certainly needs the money, as it has exhausted the phosphate deposits that once gave it wealth, generating an environmental disaster in the process.
Such diplomatic maneuverings are not unique to South Ossetia and Kosovo. Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, for example, have long dangled out aid packages in exchange for recognition, a game that Beijing is slowly winning. Thus far, Russia has fared poorly in its quest for international support for its client state. While only four internationally legitimate countries recognize South Ossetia, sixty-four currently recognize Kosovo. (South Ossetia is, however, recognized by several other generally unrecognized countries, such as Abkhazia).
How many countries are there in the world today? As the South Ossetia example shows, no precise answer can be given, as it all depends on what one counts as a country.
South Ossetia is plenty interesting in its own right, regardless of such diplomatic games. The Ossetians are the descendents of the ancient Alans, who were themselves an offshoot of the ancient Scythians. According to C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor’s fascinating book From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, most of the Arthurian legends stem directly from the folklore of the Alans, many of whom were among the invaders of the dying Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. For a film interpretation of the Littleton and Malcor thesis, see Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur.
Also to note is the fact that South Ossetia is a small part of the larger Ossetian “nation.” Only some 70,000 people reside in South Ossetia, while over 700,000 live in neighboring North Ossetia-Alania, which is an internal republic of the Russian Federation (it is part of Russia, in other words). Roughly two thirds of the people of both North and South Ossetia are ethnically Ossetian.