At some point between Israel’s autumn strike on Hamas’ top man in Gaza and the later launch into orbit of a rocket from Kim Jong Un, an event in other coordinates riled politicians into jingoistic fervour.
“An act of war”, it was called last week.
A hulking mass of battleship-grey sails into a foreign harbour, crew and weapons in tow. “Sovereignty!” is invoked, ministers are summoned, diplomatic channels dusted off, ruddy faces turn even ruddier. All in response to a most unwelcome aggravation. End scene.
Was it in the waters off the Senkaku Islands? Not this time. Shift your gaze to the west. No, not the Spratly Islands, keep going. Hint: its a 6.8km rock on the southern end of a big peninsula. Mostly English-speaking. Did I mention it’s mostly rock? Welcome to Gibraltar.
In the early evening of Monday, 10 December, a patrol boat of the Spanish Navy entered the waters of this overseas territory of Britain. It stayed there for two hours. The Royal Navy’s Gibraltar Squadron went on hot pursuit, shadowing the ship and warning via radio for it to leave. Eventually it did.
Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague had warned the House of Commons only hours earlier of the consequences to such an incursion, so perhaps this was a cheeky naval officer’s way of calling a bluff. But it’s far from anything new.
An official tally kept by the British government claims that Spanish vessels breached Gibraltar’s waters 67 times in 2010 and another 23 the year after that. And, somewhat astoundingly, from the beginning of 2012 to just last month, Navy ships from Spain paid a waterborne visit to Gibraltarians on 197 occasions.
Gibraltar’s status is one of the most contentious quandaries afflicting London-Madrid relations. But by British logic, Spain committed 287 acts of war in the past 35 months alone or 8 times per month, on average. What exactly is going on here?
Post-September 11th, after the Cold War’s buttoned-up nuclear stalemate, everything seemed to revert to the paramilitary, to the pirates, to all the insurgent chaos. And now it seems we’ve reverted even further. If the wheels of Marty McFly’s ride came skidding into the year that’s soon to end he’d be forgiven for thinking the wires got crossed. He’s in the 19th century.
From the South Atlantic to the South China Sea, 2012 has been the year of old-school naval engagements, provocations, the carving of spheres of influence, world powers trawling the waters to protect and defend what’s theirs. Chinese and Japanese naval ships remain on high alert. Despite very loud sabre-rattling, the Falklands feud (or that of the Malvinas) hasn’t returned to the trigger-happy brinksmanship of the early 1980s. We should be very glad for that.
Though at the moment it’s hard to imagine a dispute at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea escalating beyond fiery editorials and strongly worded letters, let’s please do all we can to remain in the realm of pen and ink.
And let’s keep the bayonets down, gentlemen.
Daniel Giacopelli is Associate Producer for Monocle 24.