Kilauea’s volcanic lava flows are not only burning down Hawaiian homes on their path towards the Pacific Ocean but also creating new territory, adding landmass to the American state and making the Big Island even bigger.
For years, Hawaii has been growing its shoreline with hardening, layered lava at a slow and steady pace. Since 1983, Hawaii has grown by 570 acres and is the only state to be physically expanding at a time of globally melting ice caps and rising oceans. Geologic change is usually a lot slower paced at altering the face of the earth and the facts on the ground.
Human time, however, is much faster and accelerates dramatic changes in political geography. New Chinese islands arise today where there once were only coral reefs. Russia expands and redefines its own territory by building bridges to foreign peninsulas it occupies and claims. Israel and China legitimize their claims over contested towns and turf, asserting their regional dominance by achieving the world’s diplomatic recognition.
Geologic features rise and fall over long periods of time with earthquakes, volcanoes, plate shifts, wind, and pounding surf. Political boundaries, however, rapidly ebb and flow like the seas.
Images of carefree golfers driving shots onto lush Hawaiian greens as billowing smoke from volcanic fissures and vents nearby belie Kilauea’s danger and destruction. No amount of new Hawaiian real estate value will make-up for the economic devastation caused by this latest eruption. Kilauea’s great cost to Hawaiian infrastructure and tourism is increasing by the hour.
Islands in the South China Sea are also growing in size. China is developing new islands of immeasurable strategic and economic value by building up rocks and reefs. It is turning previously undefined and uninhabitable geographic features into full-blown territorial outposts and military bases. When Hawaii became part of the United States in 1959, it extended U.S. rights and reach three extra time zones out into the Pacific Ocean. By doing so, it created a permanent maritime waystation and further fulfilled Manifest Destiny’s offshore promise.
The Chinese state and People’s Liberation Army forces want to replicate the American Pacific gambit and extend their property and power over sea lanes and regional chokepoints. Not mincing words, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang declared “the islands in the South China Sea are China’s territory.” The newly built-up Spratly Islands are dominated by military-grade runways to accommodate long-range bombers, such as the nuclear capable H6-K that ran island test flights this week. China is growing more assertive about its sovereign territorial rights around what they call the “nine-dash line.” The rest of the world is not amused.
Islands are one thing, but there are other ways to claim and reclaim lands. Man-made bridges and barriers also extend and define new sovereign territory. Turkey, Pakistan, China - even the United States - actively move boundaries and block-off access to property they claim as their own. Russia is the latest culprit to use physical infrastructure to create a contiguous connection and assert dominance over a territory it annexed and continues to occupy. President Vladimir Putin inaugurated Europe’s longest bridge to Crimea last week, but the international community continues to sanction Russia for its land grab. Only a handful of Moscow-reliant and related nations recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
It’s easy to forget, but political boundaries change all the time. Often by war, sometimes by chance, always with pain.
Whether by force, inertia or law, on my watch as a foreign correspondent I’ve watched two Germanys mash-up into one; one Velvet Revolution-freed Czechoslovakia shortly afterwards breakdown into two countries in a vote-driven Velvet Divorce; and a singular, monolithic Soviet Union crack-up into a twelve-member Commonwealth of Independent States (now down to nine states). The list of dissolutions and reunifications goes on-and-on. From the Koreas to Kurdistan, Yemen to Yugoslavia, the world’s physical geography remains unchanged, but political lines are always fluid.
Countries may claim, take or make new lands, but international property rights are perfected when other countries recognize those claims by establishing diplomatic relations and sending envoys to embassies. Last week, the United States and Paraguay both opened embassies in Jerusalem, a move creating both winners and losers. Israel and an otherwise legally-embattled President Benjamin Netanyahu are the clear winners in the embassies’ move from Tel Aviv.
Every nation wants to be a respected and recognized member of the international community, but perhaps no nation more than China. That’s why the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is busy courting and buying-off the dwindling number of nations that still recognize Taiwan, and not the government in Beijing, as representing the sole Chinese nation. This month, checkbook diplomacy enticed the Dominican Republic to switch its diplomatic loyalties from Taiwan to the PRC. The price tag? $3.1 billion in loans and investments. Next target? The Vatican. Ultimate goal? The PRC’s “reunification” with Taiwan and the fulfillment of the “One China” policy.
Hawaii’s mythical goddess of fire and volcanoes is Pelehonuamea, or Pele, for short, and her name translates into “she who shapes the sacred land.” Kilauea’s growingly violent upheaval disrupts our casual understanding of the world’s physical topography - something that mostly changes imperceptibly. The real shake-up, however, is in the political world that rapidly continues to change shape before our eyes and keeps us all living under the volcano.