Have you ever wondered how many countries that are in the world? Well, let me seem like a fairly straightforward question. It’s actually quite complicated. The problem is it depends on who you ask, as to once you get, and there isn’t one generally accepted answer. Also, the word ‘country’ has no official meaning.
A good place to start may be an organization that knows what they’re talking about – the United Nations. There are currently 193 members of the UN. This is why this is the lowest number you’ll ever hear as to how many countries there are. Along with 183 members, the UN also has two permanent non-member observer States – the Holy See representing the Vatican City state, and the state of Palestine.
Despite not being a member, the Vatican City is recognized by everyone as such. This is the state. The fact that it’s a country within a city within a country and small, not only by a country or city standards, but more comparable inside with that of a small village, with a population of around 800 and a land area of less than half a square kilometer. It is officially the smallest country in the world. And compared to the largest country, it is 38 million times smaller than Russia. But size doesn’t matter, and the fact of the matter is Vatican City is a country. So, logic would dictate that the state of Palestine is also a country, then, right? Well, no. Not yet, anyway.
The state of Palestine does want to be a full member of the UN and submitted an application in November 2011. However, the only reason Holy See is not a full member is simply that it doesn’t want to be, possibly because it wants to remain neutral. It seems, unlike Palestine, it won’t gain full membership for one reason – the United States of America.
If you’re unaware of the situation in the Middle East, the Palestinians and the Israelis have been waging war on and off for decades. And with Israel being a close ally of the United States, who often provides financial and military assistance to Israel, the US has always been against Palestine. This is despite President Obama saying he does want a solvent Palestinian state. The US didn’t even want Palestine to become an observer state, but they still won an overwhelming majority. However, an order for full membership, that decision lies with the UN Security Council.
The Security Council is made up of 15 members – five permanent members, often known as the big five, and ten non-permanent members who serve for two years. For a full member of the UN, a country must attain a two-thirds majority vote. The big five consist of China, Russia, France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, all of whom have what’s known as a veto power, in which they can veto any UN resolution, and it won’t get passed even if all other 14 members are in favor of it.
Therefore, the U.S. can simply veto any membership application made by the state of Palestine. The UN says, though, there are other reasons why you may hesitate to call Palestine a country. First of all, they don’t actually have any legally defined borders. And the lines used to delineate their claimed territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are actually lines created in 1949 as part of an armistice agreement to end the violence of the Arab-Israeli war and were never intended to be used as international borders.
On top of this, the Israeli army controls huge parts of the land, although this is widely considered by the entire international community as a breach of international law. Moving on, the U.S. Department of State lists 195 independent countries, and these are 193 members of the UN that we previously discussed, Vatican City, as well as the Republic of Kosovo.
Kosovo is a partially recognized country in Eastern Europe that declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. However, Serbia rejects their independence and claims that Kosovo was a province of Serbia. Currently, 100 of 183 members of the UN recognize Kosovo as a country. According to Kosovo, thanks to a website that thanks every country for recognizing them in their native language, Kosovo hasn’t made an application for UN membership. This is because the UN Security Council, spec 5, is split on the issue. Is Kosovo independent?
While the UK, the US, and France recognize Kosovo and have diplomatic relations with them, Russia and China do not. If all five were asked, is Kosovo a country? You would get a variety of different responses. But suffice to say, the resolution would not get passed.
Now, I couldn’t help but notice I use the word ‘count’ quite a lot. Kosovo counted, Taiwan counted, and the U.S. Department of State lists 195 countries. Yet the same 185 at the U.S. Department of State plus one more, Taiwan. The situation with Taiwan is an incredibly complex one that basically boils down to whether Taiwan is its own country or part of China.
Well, it is officially considered part of China by the UN. It effectively operates as its own country, and China has no jurisdiction with them. Taiwan’s official name, by the way, is the Republic of China, not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China, or as the more commonly known, well, China. To fully understand the situation, we need to go all the way back to 1895 when the Japanese Empire took control of the island of Taiwan from the Qing Dynasty after the fall of the dynasty in the early 20th century.
The Republic of China was established in 1912, and the Nationalist Party related government in 1921. The Communist Party of China was founded with very different ideological views, and in 1927, the Chinese Civil War began between the nationalists and communists. Japan saw civil wars as an opportunity to invade China in 1931, and for years, the civil war continued until 1937, when Japan became a full-scale invasion of China and took control of the city of Beijing.
The civil war was temporarily put on hold so China could defend its land from the Japanese. In 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, causing a media declaration of war on Japan by the United States and began their involvement in World War II. In August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Allied forces assured Japan with a surrender ultimatum known as the Potsdam Declaration.
The agreement stated, among other things, that Japan must relinquish control of land that they had acquired via force, and this included the island of Taiwan obtained 50 years previously from the Qing Dynasty. The Allies gave two choices to Japan – an unconditional surrender or face, and I quote, ‘prompt and utter destruction.’ On the 2nd of September, Japan signed the agreement which put an end to the Second World War. Sovereignty of Taiwan was, therefore, handed over to the Republic of China later that year.
The United Nations was founded with the Republic of China as one of the founding members and one of the permanent members of the Security Council. The original Big Five were effectively the same as today, except with the Republic of China and the Soviet Union instead of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, respectively.
The Chinese Civil War started up again, but let’s say around the Communist forces completely overwhelmed the Nationalist forces. In
1949, the Communist Party had total control of the mainland, forcing the Nationalists to retreat to the island of Taiwan. This effectively ended the civil war and led to the creation of the People’s Republic of China by the Communist Party.
This creates an incredibly complicated situation in which there were effectively two Chinas, but both claiming the exact same land, the whole of China. The People’s Republic of China controlled the mainland, while the Republic of China controlled Taiwan, but both claimed each other’s land. Things remained like that for the next two decades, while the Republic of China continued to represent China at the UN.
This was until 1971 when the UN General Assembly voted to replace the Republic of China with the People’s Republic of China as China’s sole representative, including Taiwan. Despite their never having any jurisdiction on the island and their history, in 1991, the Republic of China opted for a different approach and applied for UN membership under the name of the Republic of Taiwan.
Taiwan repeatedly reapplied, but with China’s veto power, realistically, it was never going to happen. The current president of Taiwan, however, does not want independence and said in his inaugural address, ‘No reunification, no independence, no war.’ He has since said he actually does want unification with China. Relations between the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents are good, but they both agree Taiwan should not be an independent country.
They both adhere to the one China policy. Unfortunately, they still can’t agree on who actually has sovereignty over China. So Taiwan is pretty much like any other country. They have their own passports, their own president, their own government, their own military. They even take part in sporting events such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, albeit under the pseudonym Chinese Taipei to keep China happy.
So, while very few countries officially recognize Taiwan as a country or the Republic of China as a legitimate government, China, most countries do recognize Taiwan unofficially and have Taiwan embassies within their countries. But countries tend to avoid officially recognizing Taiwan as a country as it pisses off China. This is the reason why the U.S. Department of State lists 195 countries and includes Taiwan, because the United States really wouldn’t want to piss off China for let’s just say political reasons.
So, is everyone clear on the situation with Taiwan then? No? Well, no one really is, but we need to move on to the place where I left, the United Kingdom. More specifically, Scotland. By the United Kingdom, I want to talk about the United Kingdom is generally referred to as a country of countries, consisting of Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
So, is the United Kingdom one country or four countries? Well, first of all, it’s actually a misconception that it’s four countries in the UK. There’s actually only three. See, while Scotland and England both have a history of being independent countries, and Wales is a little more complicated as it was previously considered a principality, but it’s never been a country.
Northern Ireland is not nor has it ever been a country. Northern Ireland is technically considered a province of the United Kingdom. This newsletter from the International Organization for Standardization clearly lists Northern Ireland as a province, as well as the status of Wales being upgraded from a principality to a country.
Although it could be argued that the Principality of Wales ended in 1542, and that Wales has been a country for centuries. A very brief history lesson: in 1707, the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England, which included Wales, joined to create the Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1801, the Kingdom of Ireland joined to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Then, in 1922, after the Irish War of Independence, Ireland seceded from Britain and formed the Republic of Ireland. Briefly, the whole island seceded from Britain, but Northern Ireland quickly and unexpectedly rejoined to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is what is known as today.
So, Northern Ireland was part of Ireland and is now part of the UK, but has never been a country in its own right. Northern Ireland doesn’t even have its own official flag. The St. Patrick’s Saltire is sometimes used unofficially to distinguish Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, and the Ulster Banner is what’s generally used in sporting events and is what FIFA uses to represent the national football team.
But then, Ireland only has one official flag, the Union Jack. So, the UK is made up of three countries and one province. And while those three countries are not independent countries or sovereign states, they are still countries. The term for a country within a country is a constituent country, and it’s not unique to the United Kingdom.
The Netherlands is a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which contains three other countries: Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten. The Netherlands is in Europe, while the other three Caribbean countries are in the Caribbean, some 5,000 miles away. To further complicate matters, the Netherlands is made up of 12 provinces in Europe, as well as three special municipalities, also in the Caribbean.
These are Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba, collectively referred to as the Caribbean Netherlands. And the term Dutch Caribbean is used to refer to all the Caribbean islands within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. All four countries in the Kingdom are considered equal, but in reality, 98% of both population and land area are within the 12 European provinces.
Another example would be the Kingdom of Denmark, which holds sovereignty over the two autonomous countries of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Greenland being the world’s largest island that’s not a continent, and the Faroe Islands are a small archipelago off Scotland. But despite Greenland being over 1,500 times the size of the Faroe Islands, both have a similar population of around 50,000.
There’s also French Polynesia, which is an overseas country of the French Republic, made up of several islands in the South Pacific, most notably Tahiti. Then, we come to a slightly more complicated situation with New Zealand and the countries of Niue and the Cook Islands, who are in an agreement known as free association.
There are only three other countries in the world under free association, and those are the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau, all in free association with the United States. The major difference is all three of these countries are members of the UN, while Niue and the Cook Islands are not.
Freely associated states can be thought of as both independent or not or even both. It’s kind of like a Schroedinger’s cat situation in which a cat can be thought of as both dead and alive simultaneously. Niue and the Cook Islands could be considered both independent and not simultaneously. So, we could call these two Schroedinger’s countries.
And finally, we come to a category of countries, and I use the term loosely, that have received little or no recognition. One example would be Somaliland, part of Somalia that declared itself an independent country but has thus far received absolutely no recognition whatsoever from any country, UN or otherwise.
Of course, there are other examples, all of whom have received at least some recognition, albeit extremely limited, and in some cases, not even by any UN members. External recognition is a key attribute