Sovereignty and the Sea: How Indonesia Became an Archipelagic State, by John G. Butcher and R.E. Elson

in Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia

John G. Butcher and R.E. Elson, Sovereignty and the Sea: How Indonesia Became an Archipelagic State. Singapore: NUS Press, 2017, xxviii + 527 pp. ISBN 9789814722216, price: SGD 58.00 (hardcover).

In Sovereignty and the Sea, distinguished scholars John G. Butcher and R.E. Elson detail the complex diplomatic and legal processes by which Indonesia became an archipelagic state—an island nation which exercises full sovereignty over not only its constituent islands but also the waters that flow between those islands. Between the early 1950s and 1982, Indonesian delegations led by Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, Hasjim Djalal, and others struggled in international forums to bring the young nation’s archipelagic waters under national jurisdiction. To achieve their goals these diplomats faced strong opposition from Western maritime powers—primarily Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands—interested in protecting unrestricted movement of maritime traffic and access to rich fishing grounds.

Prior to 1957, Indonesia was comprised of hundreds of segments of territory cut off from one another by high seas over which the Indonesian state did not have jurisdiction. With the declaration of the Djuanda cabinet in December of that year, however, the Indonesian government for the first time asserted ‘ “absolute sovereignty” over all the waters lying within straight baselines drawn between the outermost islands of Indonesia,’ and ‘formed Indonesia … into a single unified territory for the first time (p. xx).’ This radical declaration, however, was only the beginning of a more than three-decades long struggle to achieve full recognition of these claims in the realm of international law. Butcher and Elson utilize their extensive research expertise (fisheries and political history of Indonesia, respectively) to tell the story of this saga and do so in a thorough but readable manner.

Several works, most prominently those by Indonesian diplomats involved in the campaign such as Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, Bunga Rampai Hukum Laut (Jakarta: Penerbit Binacipta, 1978) and Hasjim Djalal, Perjuangan Indonesia di Bidang Hukum Laut (Jakarta: Penerbit Binacipta, 1979), have told the story of how Indonesia became an archipelagic state. Yet, Butcher and Elson tell the story of this struggle with great detail and breadth, and capture the complexities of the campaign more effectively than any previous work. The authors’ account is based on a range of sources, including United Nations records, interviews with figures central to the campaign, and a range of archival sources from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Fiji. However, and unfortunately, due to ‘official unhelpfulness and obfuscation’ on the part of the National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia, Indonesian archival sources were for the most part not consulted. This creates some inevitable gaps in the record, but the authors compensate for this lack through judicious use of archives of other nations, as well as interviews with Indonesian delegates.

The first two chapters of the book provide the historical context for the monumental Djuanda declaration of 1957 and offer readers a clear understanding of why the emergent nation took this radical step. Here the authors describe the creation of the Netherlands Indies with particular attention paid to the process by which the colonial government expropriated the rights of indigenous rulers over coastal waters adjacent to their landed territories. These initial chapters also provide an interesting account of the formation of the concept of ‘the Netherlands Indies archipelago’ as a territorial space, and the ways in which conflicts surrounding the regulation of fisheries, pearl banks, and whaling in the early 1900s forced colonial officials to more precisely define the extent of the Netherlands’ jurisdiction in the waters surrounding their colony. Chapter two ends with the onset of World War Two and Japanese occupation, when all deliberation over questions of maritime jurisdiction ceased, only to be picked up again after the revolution with renewed urgency by leaders of a newly independent Indonesia.

The remaining seventeen chapters provide a chronological account of the campaign for international recognition of Indonesia’s territorial unity—a geographical unity that Indonesian officials, most notably Sukarno, believed to be ‘ordained by God’ (p. 46). As a young and relatively weak nation facing a range of obstacles and crises, Indonesian leaders were, in Butcher and Elson’s view, ‘obsessed’ with state sovereignty and territorial integrity (p. 49). This obsession, coupled with major developments in the law of the sea, impelled the republic’s leadership to reassess the status of the waters surrounding the islands of Indonesia. In a draft document of 9 December 1957, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja—then a young civil servant with expertise in international law tasked by Chairul Saleh to design a more ‘revolutionary’ vision of Indonesia’s maritime space—put forth a concept of Indonesian waters that declared Indonesia to be an archipelago that formed one unit, and drew straight baselines between the outermost points of the outermost islands, thereby encompassing all the islands of Indonesia and transforming all the straits and seas that lay between them into an ‘internal sea’ (pp. 70–71). Amid the turmoil of the West Irian crisis, which had Dutch warships cruising Indonesian waters, the Djuanda cabinet issued a declaration based on Mochtar’s vision of Indonesia as an archipelagic state with absolute sovereignty over its territorial waters.

The Djuanda declaration was the first step in a long and complicated struggle for international recognition of Indonesia’s sovereignty over its maritime space. Western maritime powers were immediately outraged by the declaration, and their protests would shape the debate in the ensuing years. At various points over the next two decades Indonesian officials creatively used maritime boundary agreements as a bargaining chip to indirectly gain some recognition of Indonesia’s status as an archipelagic state. Yet, it was not until the signing of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that Indonesia was recognized as an archipelagic state in international law. Though the Indonesian delegation did not achieve all that they had fought for, for delegates like Mochtar and Djalal who dedicated a substantial portion of their lives to this endeavor the signing of the Convention represented a major victory. Throughout the struggles portrayed in this book, what stands out most is the power of the vision and very idea of Indonesia as forming a single territorial unity. As the authors note, Indonesian officials regarded the Djuanda declaration ‘as enunciating a unity that existed in some form for centuries … and saw themselves as instruments for putting back into place a unity that Western imperialism had come close to destroying …’ (p. 421). This powerful vision of Indonesian unity guided every action of those campaigners and sustained them over the course of three unpredictable decades.

As a whole, Sovereignty and the Sea is a welcome addition to the existing body of scholarship on the development of Indonesia’s maritime territory and the conception of Indonesia as a unified archipelagic state. Despite limited access to Indonesian archival sources, Butcher and Elson are entirely successful in their goals. They have provided a detailed and sophisticated genealogy of the Indonesian archipelagic state, and they have told the story well. While this book will surely be of interest to scholars of international maritime law, the authors’ ability to weave this tale into the broader narrative of Indonesian political history make Sovereignty and the Sea of interest to a much wider audience.


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