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I'm writing a story that involves two superpowers at war. The main character has made a base on a large, unoccupied island that is easily accessible by both superpowers. Would there be a good reason that both of these superpowers have not claimed any part of this island even with the futuristic equipment they have at their disposal and the main character can?

EDIT: It's hard to pick a correct answer out of this since I need to take bits and pieces from all of them so if your answer didn't get put as the 'correct' one don't worry! All of the answers were considered and helped me make my conclusion.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is this a shooting war, or a cold war? $\endgroup$ – Nate Eldredge Apr 10 '17 at 5:01
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    $\begingroup$ I'm doubtful that any island is perfectly good. Most of them are evil, and even the best among them barely pass for neutral. Now, if you mean a perfectly lawful island, that I can believe. I've never seen an island violate natural law. It's uncanny the way they obey! $\endgroup$ – SRM Apr 10 '17 at 5:53
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    $\begingroup$ The third superpower still not at war. $\endgroup$ – Jan 'splite' K. Apr 10 '17 at 6:42
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    $\begingroup$ Note: Switzerland during WWII. The whole of Western Europe was embroiled in the war, except Switzerland, and that's not because of their military power. $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Apr 10 '17 at 8:40
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM actually it is/was because of our military power... or rather because od our defenses. Trying to conquer Switzerland would've resulted in conquering it, sure. But not without major losses and attrition :D $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Apr 10 '17 at 11:42

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The claiming of the land could shift the balance between the two powers and precipitate conflict. What you're more likely to see is people claim the land, and then not do anything about it. Other reasons could include it being positioned in an area that has no strategic use or being too small for practical purposes of military installations. It could also have to do with resource allocation, in other words this site isn't worth the resources that would need to be expended to turn it into a useful area. Let some other small party claim it, and then when they've put in the effort to extract the resources of the island, step in and either take it or demand a tax. Which is likely when the two superpowers will start stepping on each others toes.

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    $\begingroup$ I am assuming you want this "that has so strategic use" to be this "that has no strategic use". Your answer is mostly the answer I was going to give, with one additional piece. The Island and Main Character can be a tipping point vs the Super Power trying to claim it. As an example, the Island and Main Character has just enough power/influence such that if it is forced to take a side, then the side it chooses has the edge. This is not an uncommon scenario in the business world and business vs business. $\endgroup$ – Enigma Maitreya Apr 9 '17 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ A real-life counterexample to 'too small to use'. $\endgroup$ – Maciej Piechotka Apr 10 '17 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ Antarctica is a good example. A lot of states have claims there, but this has no real-world significance. $\endgroup$ – Simon Richter Apr 11 '17 at 5:08
  • $\begingroup$ @MaciejPiechotka thats more a function of the three most important traits in real estate. $\endgroup$ – fectin Apr 11 '17 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ @fectin From OP description it sounds like the before-mentioned island do have this trait(s). It mostly depend on period but as shown even in WWII technology small islands in strategic locations would be used. In modern times the abilities are much higher. In future - see Diamond Age. $\endgroup$ – Maciej Piechotka Apr 11 '17 at 18:59
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Let's take a look on the real world:

Not connected to superpowers, but a place with a comparable status does exist in Africa, between Egypt and Sudan: Bir Tawil. The reason is, that both countries do claim a larger area near it but not that small one. They cannot change the claimed border line to include the unclaimed area, without updating the claim on the area claimed by both, because they cannot have two claims for one border at the same time. But for border claims it is important how old they are. If they did want to claim that area, they had to drop their >100 year claim on the bigger area. At least that's how I understood it. Maybe that, or a similar legal complication is the reason for your case? For details https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bir_Tawil

A different anormality involving superpowers I can think of, is a spot that existed in the separated city of Berlin. The place was not really unclaimed, but when the Wall was built, for practical reasons a bit of the eastern part that reached into the western part was kept outside of the Wall. At some point some NATO critic protesters from the west put up a protest camp there. Neither the allied troops nor Berlin authorities could do anything against them, since they were on foreign land. Removing them would have been an act against the sovereignty of the DDR. Eastern authorities hat no way of reaching them, because their own wall kept them out (no idea if they minded them being there). Was just a really small spot, but maybe you could build something out of that idea? I do not have a link for that, sadly.

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    $\begingroup$ The Egypt example is the answer I was going to make but you beat me to it :) $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Apr 10 '17 at 6:20
  • $\begingroup$ Please don't link to mobile Wikipedia here. Normal links will be redirected to mobile ones on mobile phones, but the opposite is not true. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Apr 10 '17 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot Sorry, did write this from my tablet. Thanks for fixing it. $\endgroup$ – kratenko Apr 10 '17 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ This video tries to explain why the unclaimed land between Egybt and Sudan is unclaimed (i am aware that youtupe is not exactly a reliable source, but the explenation sounds valid): youtu.be/gtLxZiiuaXs?t=6m45s $\endgroup$ – Nikolaj Apr 10 '17 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ Also noteworthy: the Canada/Denmark property of Hans Island $\endgroup$ – David Starkey Apr 11 '17 at 19:29
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A non aggression treaty between the superpowers and or the Island leaders.

The Island is a source of a useful service or product which the Island leader can provide/produce but neither of the Superpowers can without establishing a dangerous monopoly which would cause the other to take measures.

Technology makes the proximity redundant in terms of position, ie,. it wouldn't impede a strike force even if it was fortified and it's not a useful defensive site due to whatever factors being absent that would make it one. Perhaps too small, too flat etc,. a single bomb would send it to the bottom of the sea in pieces.

Or something as simple as it's in formalised International waters outside either Superpowers borders and any encroachment would be in breach of recognised international law.

Or it's more useful as a sovereign state than not. Many Pacific Islands are in that position right now, they are extremely valuable to bigger countries because as sovereign nations they get a vote in international bodies that formulate international laws and resolve disputes.

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Religious taboo could keep the countries from claiming it... something like Vatican City staying independent from Italy. If your island had some sort of cultural history common to both nations, they might leave it as neutral so that their fights never have a reason to happen on that island. This would also be useful as it gives the two nations neutral ground to meet on to discuss treaties, should the need arise.

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    $\begingroup$ Had not really considered that aspect. $\endgroup$ – Enigma Maitreya Apr 10 '17 at 16:00
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Missile range.

The two superpowers are some distance apart, and can't attack each other directly with missiles.

This can be because they simply don't have missiles reaching that far or that the anti-missile defenses are good enough to handle the long-range missiles.

This island lies smack in the middle, at half the distance from either side. It does not have missile defenses.

Both sides would like to have a base there, which means they don't want the opponent to have a base there. Both sides know that if either side were to establish a base there, the other side would bomb them to pieces with missiles before they could establish proper defenses.

While this leaves the island nicely unoccupied, it also poses a problem for your hero. If either side discovers their base, they will bomb it. Stay hidden!

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  • $\begingroup$ This was my first though $\endgroup$ – Andrey Apr 10 '17 at 18:19
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I'm writing a story that involves two superpowers at war. The main character has made a base on a large, unoccupied island that is easily accessible by both superpowers.

Easily accessible by both superpowers

You've already answered your question. If both superpowers can easily access the island, then either superpower can easily destroy any installation that the other creates. Therefore, assuming that neither side is ruled by complete idiots, nobody is going to waste the resources to try and build anything on this island, since it'll just get blown up or blockaded or otherwise rendered useless.

Now, this alone doesn't 100% explain why they wouldn't both at least claim the island. Belligerent states do tend to lay claim to everything. So, we have to take into consideration reputation and assume that neither side currently claims it. Given these two things, if either side decided to lay claim to the island, then the other superpower could prevent the construction of any installations and then just waltz in for a photo shoot every month or so. "Ooooh, look at the mighty superpower. Can't even defend one lousy island from our 'elite' photographers, ooooh." It works better if you use really wimpy-looking photographers and include their picture in the press release. It's just too easy for one superpower to punish any move by the other on this island.

The main character isn't affected by this, since (I assume) he/she/it is not at war with either superpower. As to why the superpowers ignore him/her/it, do elephants go out of their way to squash caterpillars?

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What about Antarctica? The antarctic treaty of 1961 now has around 53 parties, and sets Antarctica as a zone of scientific preserve, where you can't bring your military but your scientists are perfectly okay to visit. The treaty is available here. Could be an interesting take on this - the main character could be a scientist or just be hanging out there, but the countries can't take the land because they can't bring their military, they can just lay claims to it.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this is just a specific instance of "island has no useful resources" idea. If Antarctica was exploitable, I doubt the science treaty would ever have gotten off the proposal stage. $\endgroup$ – SRM Apr 10 '17 at 19:35
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The island in question has no important natural resources and even more important, it has no positive or even negative strategic value. Negative strategic value means that it is simply not defensible (too many easy landings or bomber routes, protecting it would cost much too money in relation to its value), the other superpower can easily launch a devastating sneak attack, destroying infrastructure and support without breaking a sweat.

Superpowers in those situations often display an unspoken contract: "We both know that this island is not worth the effort; don't claim it and we don't attack it".

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In addition to other ideas - the island is just off shore of a third superpower. While it may have many strategic uses any of the two superpowers claiming the island would directly threaten the third one, possibly involving it in the war.

Alternatively the island has too valuable resources to risk disruption. Think Sweden during WWII, which wasn't invaded because of their steel.

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  • High maintenance costs.
    It could be that there is some massive geographically induced maintenance cost for occupying the territory. Perhaps there would be major topsoil run-off if not for some expensive anti-runoff project to keep it intact. The maintenance costs may make it unreasonable to place a military base on that location. Taxpayers may not be okay with spending that much money to place a military base there. But it might be possible for a very high revenue capitalist enterprise to occupy that location, i.e. the world's largest casino or sports stadium.

  • Location is impossible to defend.
    I'm of the understanding that high ground is easy to defend and low ground is hard to defend. Perhaps it is a location that is way below sea level, and is very easy to capture, but impossible to then defend. No one wants to capture it, because once you occupy it, it's easy for enemies to just roll grenades, cannonballs, chemicals, etc. downhill into the area. The only party crazy enough to occupy it is a neutral party with no military ties.

  • Combination of both of the above.

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    $\begingroup$ An island that's way below sea level would have high maintenance costs -- just look at polders in the netherlands -- dikes to form a sort of waffle like surface, then windmills to pump them out. But something like this wouldn't be naturally occurring, and can't be unoccupied for any significant duration without the sea reclaiming it. $\endgroup$ – Joe Apr 11 '17 at 3:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Joe at sea level, yes. But think of an island in a large lake, surrounded by steep hills or mountain peaks. It'd sit at the level of the lake or just above it, but be easy to bombard from the surrounding slopes and peaks (which would also serve to make it hard to approach from the air by the defending side by placing some gun or missile emplacements on the peaks). $\endgroup$ – jwenting Apr 11 '17 at 6:38
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly. Maybe it’s not worth the effort or they don’t have the resources. If, for example, your population is already declining, what’s the use of expanding your area? $\endgroup$ – Michael Apr 11 '17 at 9:04
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Bog Island

98% of the surface is bog, rendering it, although nicely ecologically diverse, virtually strategically useless for either superpower to use on a large enough scale to invest time and resources.

Your main character, however, is a lone resourceful and patient person who happened to realize the excellent potential of this environment for a one-man base camp. He knows all the correct places easiest to get around, and over time was able to locate enough solid ground and make camp near a here-to-fore unknown, deep-interior, well-hidden potable spring. The very wild flora and fluid soil consistency of the bog effectively hides paths made by only a single traveler, who makes a good effort not to unduly disturb any of the areas on the outer perimeter of the island through careful route planning.

This environment allows for readily available game and edible plants for survival, and an excellent opportunity to defend camp if needed. If an unwanted visitor doesn't know the right places to travel, they will spend crucial time backtracking for another attempt at a hopefully more stable-ground path. That time allows ample opportunity for the main character to utilize whatever fun methods you'd like to create to lure or divert the visitor away from camp and eventually encouraged back the way they came--off the island.

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    $\begingroup$ They told me I was daft to build a castle in a swamp. $\endgroup$ – Friendlysociopath Apr 11 '17 at 15:12
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The book Foundation by Isaac Asimov sets up a similar situation, but with four powers around the militarily weak planet of Terminus. The titular Foundation on Terminus cooperates with all of its neighbors, sharing technology and even educating their people. So, if anyone around it attacks them, the rest will band together to maintain their access to Terminus.

If you add a third superpower (or even a number of weaker countries willing to work together), then the same idea could work for you. And if one of the warring superpowers gets too much of an upper hand, they could threaten the balance of power that allows this island to remain independent.

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Are you familiar with "And to My Nephew Albert I Leave the Island What I Won off Fatty Hagan in a Poker Game" [1969] by David Forrest. Very highly recommended. The story is set at the height of the cold war, the island is owned by the eponymous Albert who rents half the island to the crew of a Russian spy trawler who crashed there, and the other half to the US army sent to watch them. Albert and his girlfriend commute between the two sides.

The island itself has little strategic value but both sides are loathe to give it up while the other is there. Neither superpower escalates the nervous stand-off while they wait and believe that some sort of strategic or political advantage may be gained by their side holding, at least in part, the island, which each assumes must have some "value" by the fact that the other side has chosen to occupy it. The joke being those actually living on the island are abiding quite harmoniously and all notions of a border or ideological differences are forgotten.

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The island could have some sort of unique flora or fauna. The two powers, even though they are at war, can at least agree that the island should be set aside as a nature preserve.

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  • $\begingroup$ Alternatively, the unique flora or fauna found on the island are harmful to a majority of the populace. So sending soldiers through their is asking for trouble. Meanwhile, the protagonist may be one of the lucky few that either knows how to deal with said flora/fauna with resources or otherwise is just resistant to the effects. $\endgroup$ – Friendlysociopath Apr 11 '17 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ Or maybe inoculating more than a very small number of people is not cost effective and exceeds the value of the island. $\endgroup$ – BlackVegetable Apr 11 '17 at 19:24
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Various aspects which you can combine in various ways.

The people who live on that island wish to remain independent. They'll put up strong resistance. They'll lose, but victory will be costly for the invader, and the resources consumed would be better spent on directly confronting the enemy. Note that invading an island is always expensive. You need a fleet of amphibious vehicles. You need to plan for many more casualties than the defenders, because invaders are exposed on beaches and defenders are well dug in. You need to supply your invaders.

The people who live on the island will immediately ally themselves with the other superpower, and given such military support they could be worse than simply a distraction. So neither superpower wants to cause the island's population to fight for the other side (with support). Better they stay neutral.

Any military presence on that island would be perceived as a direct military threat by a significant third neutral power, so whichever superpower takes the island may tip the military balance against itself, by bringing the third power into the conflict on the other side, or merely by finding that the third power imposes export or financial sanctions.

There are no resources on the island worth the cost of invading it. Include under resources, location itself. In other words, the island might be an "unsinkable aircraft carrier", but its in a completely useless location from this perspective.

There is known to be an endemic parasite on the island, to which the indigenous islanders have a degree of resistance born of long suffering and evolution. It's infectious. Think, maybe, malaria, but capable of spreading via bodily contact rather than an insect vector. Anyway, a very good reason not to go there without supplies of a hard-to-manufacture, expensive, and not entirely reliable prophylactic drug.

The island is protected by alternating weather systems. The weather will turn against either invading superpower six months later, making its supply route hard and the other side's attack route easier.

(SF answer with acknowledgement to the late Iain M Banks) The island looks to be a prize worth taking. Except that it is also known from history, that the last five civilisations which attacked it did not prosper in the long term. Circumstantially, the island appears to have something of the nature of a local deity or force of nature protecting it. So, are we feeling lucky?

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The island is believed to be covered in land-mines.

There is an actual island near Argentina that is actually covered in land-mines (or so I'm told) and the only inhabitants are penguins who are too light to set them off (or perhaps the island is pristine and the penguins are laughing at us all.) No one disputes this island, which was once war-torn iirc.

But it really isn't.

Now, your island is actually unmarred by land-mines or similar problems, but the main character discovers this by accident, perhaps by being shipwrecked on the island, which by all accounts should have set off a massive chain reaction of explosives. Knowing that the island isn't mined/haunted/smelly/covered-in-grues is what allows the main character to reside there.

But that belief won't last forever.

Everyone else just thinks the main character is both insanely lucky and just insane to continue living there, but that belief will fade with time as it is too improbable that the character hasn't blown him/herself to smithereens, leaving the character vulnerable to the two powers unless he/she can form a new lie...

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    $\begingroup$ From the major powers' POV, the main character may simply know how to detect and remove land mines. In which case it's not at all certain the occupant removed all of them, so the minefield may remain effective against people not him. $\endgroup$ – Harper Apr 11 '17 at 17:35
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I suggest you watch the recent BBC drama Taboo http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3647998/. The premise of this show is almost identical to yours, the 2 powers are the US & Britain in 1814. The central character has claims to an island called Nootka Sound, he eventually succeeds in claiming the island for himself by playing the powers off against each other (amongst other methods). It may give you some ideas.

Another line of thought worth considering, if your story is set in the future, is the prospect of personal/corporate military strength surpassing nation states due to advanced AI/robotics. If an individual or corporation 'cracks' true Artificial Superintelligence (ASI) it is reckoned there would be an exponential technology advance.

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The existing occupants are cray

The civilization there is one of the last non-contacted tribes on earth, isolated and uncorrupted by the outside world. This is by mutual agreement on all sides, although their opinion can only be discerned by the hail of arrows which meets every boat or aircraft. No diplomacy with this bunch, and an invasion of Texas would be less bloody. Nearby tribes who were contacted and integrated, went through pretty much the end of their society and their veritable enslavement, and the social values of all powers do not permit this anymore. So it has been the long practice of all the powers to just leave them alone.

And there is no particular value to be had there. Keep in mind all the powers already have coverage in this area with portable islands, i.e. ships.

Or for that matter it could be a Hunger Games/District 13 type situation where the occupants, though isolated, are capable of defending themselves from a modern force.

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