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Why Geopolitical Pettiness Matters

by Mark Hay

June 15, 2015
Screenshot from Reuters youtube channel

For most of us, passive aggression is a quintessentially interpersonal experience. Half-nasty notes on office refrigerators, the silent but exaggerated movement of chairs in crowded restaurants—these actions are a manifestation of the pettiness that can exist when individuals can't sublimate their anger into rational communication. It's the sort of festering emotion we like to think does not exist in the efficient superstructures of businesses or governments. Yet even the most austere and respectable institutions can act just like churlish humans. The latest, greatest example of this capacity for extra-human passive aggression comes from a recent spat between Belgium and France. 

Back in March, when France got word that neighboring Belgium had started minting a new €2 coin commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, they threw a national hissy fit. Waterloo, a bloody conflict fought on June 18, 1815 just south of Brussels, notoriously marked the end of Napoleon Bonaparte’s expansionist career. Apparently the French are still sore about that loss, as they argued Belgium’s commemoration of their defeat at Waterloo would be damaging to the French consciousness and the unity of the European Union. Officials in Paris flashed just enough ire to convince Belgium to stop minting the coins, essentially costing Brussels about $1.7 million. But as it became increasingly clear just how facile France’s arguments were, especially after failing to deter the Dutch from issuing a Waterloo commemorative Euro last month, Belgian authorities probably felt a bit irked—and they seem to have channeled that emotion into a monetary fuck you directed at the ever-touchy French:

On 8 June, Belgium announced that while it had no plans to restart printing its Waterloo €2 coins, thus honoring the official promise to France, Brussels would be taking advantage of an obscure provision in Eurozone law allowing member nations to print irregular currencies for use within their national borders. As a result, Belgium would mint 70,000 €2.50 coins featuring an image of Lion’s Hill, the site of the contentious battle. The Belgians would make a €10 Waterloo silver coin as well, and sell both as money-making collector’s items, not just replacing the nation’s losses but making hay on France’s temper tantrum. Brussels thereby found a chance to stick its tongue out at its sensitive neighbors, and generate a whole lot of bemused-to-praising press in the process.

Many (outside of France) took the row with good humor, although it does come off as a catty affair. And while much of geopolitics carries a hint of backhanded rancor, sometimes the world manifests situations that are so purely passive aggressive that they stop you in your tracks. Often these not-so-subtle slaps are delivered by non-governmental forces, like when earlier this year the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society mockingly welcomed Russian submarines reportedly lurking in their waters with a “Singing Sailor”—a submarine neon sign of a mariner thrusting his hips and emitting a Morse code signal to Russian crews reading “this way if you’re gay,” mocking the encroaching nation’s anti-homosexuality laws. But every now and then it’s national governments themselves that carry out massive and daring acts of passive aggressive geopolitics. And when they do, the effect is all the more audacious in tone and massive in undertaking. The following is a list of five significant and absurd national acts of passive aggression from recent history, assembled subjectively and unscientifically:

India’s Special Frontier Force

Back in 1962, China and India fought an all-out war over their shared Himalayan border. The details of the war are complex, but to simplify things grossly, they involved questions of who controlled certain regions tied to Chinese-held Tibet, and had been exacerbated by India’s accommodation of Tibetan refugees fleeing the communists in previous years. Over the course of a few months, India began to lose the conflict, and would have lost a significant chunk of territory too, if China hadn’t offered a ceasefire and then withdrawn to a still-contentious line of control.

A humbled India could have eaten some crow and approached the negotiation table to settle its differences with China to achieve border security. Instead, it found some 20,000 Tibetan refugees, trained them as soldiers, and posted them as a force of mountain commandos at the contentious border, where they remain to this day, getting into constant spats with China. Nothing says “fuck you” like arming the enemies of your enemy, leaving them on the border to stare down your foe, and then pretending like you’ve done nothing untoward at all.

China’s Stapled Visas

In turn, China has come up with its own ways of subtly sticking it to India over the Himalayan border. Its annoyance tactic of choice has been a painful bureaucratic paper cut: issuing stapled visas for residents of disputed regions like Arunachal Pradesh or Kashmir, rather than your usual stamped or pasted visa. That sounds like nothing to you and me, but to a border agent it’s an infuriating insinuation by Chinese diplomats that these regions actually aren’t the same as others in India—that they’re de facto independent. By not offering people from these areas the same visas as other Indians, the Chinese maintain their assertion that the sovereignty of these regions is still in question. India, insulted, refuses to accept the irregularity, forcing it to turn its own citizens back when they try to leave the nation. And to make things worse, China flip-flops on the policy, issuing normal visas when it feels like it and stapling visas when the mood strikes.

Image by Ssolbergj via Wikimedia Commons

Russia’s Sudden Fences

In the summer of 2008, a brief war between Georgia and Russia (disastrous for the former) introduced the world to the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, which seemed quite eager to separate, either becoming an independent state or a part of Russia. At the conclusion of the war, despite Russia’s dominance, Georgia and the rest of the world refused to acknowledge the separation of South Ossetia. Russia is in effective control of the region, but feeling quite miffed.

Instead of making a big stink about the issue and demanding self-determination for South Ossetia and recognition from the rest of the world for its tiny client state, Russia decided to just make a quiet power play. Starting around 2011, Georgian villagers would suddenly find massive fences built through their villages and farms, marking a solid border between their nation and South Ossetia. With few crossings, the fence is nearly impenetrable, and infuriating for many on the ground trying to get to grandmother’s house. But it’s not really a border. It’s just a fence that happens to be there, and if it happens to coincide with South Ossetia and make it functionally an independent region, well, so be it, Georgia will have to live with that reality. The fence abides.

China’s Materializing Territory

Ever since its inception, the People’s Republic of China has claimed that it controls a massive swathe of the strategically significant trading region (and potentially lucrative oil field) of the South China Sea. However under UN law the nation has been told that it cannot claim sovereignty over the 291 uninhabited reefs and sandbars, even if built up artificially, in the region, which remains international waters. Yet China has watched for years as the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have built up islands and established a military presence in the region, all while the same international actors who berated China’s claims to the territory turned a blind eye.

Beijing has responded over the past couple of years by building more man made islands in the region than all the other nations in the world combined throughout history, and building up a massive military presence. This may look like actual aggressive posturing, but it’s really hyper-industrious passive aggression, with an insistent underlying message of feigned innocence, and an overt position of officially playing by the same rules as everyone else—a claim of innocence steeped in absurdity by China dwarfing the other nations involved. “Oh, is this wrong?” China seems to be asking. “Because they were doing it, so we just thought…” Except that this no-big-deal posturing may, some believe, accidentally slip into WWIII.

Image from the Türkvizyon contest by Can Sözer via Wikimedia Commons

Turkey’s Own Eurovision  

Turkey tried for ages to become a part of the European Union. A classical transitional culture straddling Europe and Asia, the nation has always felt like membership in the club of supposedly developed and urbane nations was important to its future. So Turkey submitted its first application for recognition in the European Community in 1987. And then argued their case for the better part of two decades, participating in European affairs and events left and right, before slowly giving up the ghost. Yet for all the effort, there were rarely any good reasons to keep Turkey out of the Union, save some lingering sense that the Turks, as Muslims from over there, were just different.

In recent years, Turkey has become so fed up with this exclusion that it’s responded by saying, “fine, then we’ll just make our own club.” And one of the most comically passive manifestations of the contempt with which they’ve pursued this policy has been Turkvision, Turkey’s direct parallel to Europe’s Eurovision, the notoriously tacky song competition. Founded in 2013, the year Turkey stopped participating in the European contest, Turkvision pits 24 Turkic regions of the world against each other in pretty much the same setting and under the same rules as the European contest. But everything is a little different, and of course in Turkic tongues.

BONUS: The Pettiest Mayor in The World

The mayor of Ankara's Transformers statue. Image via http://forum.4pforen.4players.de

Although this is not an example of one nation sticking it to another, special mention has to go to Melih Göçek, the mayor of Ankara, Turkey. Back in April, Göçek decided to install a Transformers knock-off statue in the center of town, using taxpayer money to promote his vanity project, a massive theme park known as AnkaPark. But local architects (and citizens) blocked the project, decrying the flippancy and misappropriation of funds involved in the unilateral instillation of the statue. In response, Göçek democratized the process, allowing his Twitter followers to vote on a replacement statue… from a choice of dinosaurs. He wound up putting up a giant T-Rex (which doesn’t even seem to have actually been the Twitter poll winner) in a massive, silent “fuck off, I do what I want” to everyone involved.

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Why Geopolitical Pettiness Matters