Potential Hot Spots: December 18, 1999


For more than a decade, there has been a quiet debate over the fate of eight small US-owned islands in the Bering and Chukchi Seas near Alaska. The islands (Wrangle, Herald, Bennett, Jeannette, and Henrietta in the Arctic Ocean; Copper Island, Sea Otter Rock, and Sea Lion Rock near the Aleutians) are US territory (American explorers first located them, some in the 19th century), but have been occupied by the Russians since the 1930s. Stalin considered them a strategic threat. The islands have a combined surface area roughly equal to Rhode Island and Delaware combined, but they also define thousands of square miles of seabed and fishing grounds. The "border" between Alaska and the Soviet Union (now Russia) is in fact not technically a border at all, but a "convention line". The line was agreed to in 1867 as a simple means of defining known territory. The State Department has been trying since the Carter Administration to turn the Convention Line into a Maritime Border, effectively ceding the eight islands (and the surrounding ocean) to the Soviets (and now to the Russians), and has in fact reached an "executive agreement" which does just that. Such an agreement, however, is not a treaty and can be revoked by either side. Conservative groups have declared this the final proof that the State Department is in fact an agency of the Soviet/Russian government, and the State Legislature of Alaska has declared the State Department's new border to be "null, void, and non-binding on the State of Alaska". The Russians have been trying to cancel the agreement, in fact, because they want it rewritten to give them a greater share of the Bering Sea fishing grounds. If the US were to assert its historic claims to the eight islands, the US would gain huge tracts of maritime territory, many times what the Russians are demanding. --Stephen V Cole


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