By: Frederick Situmorang
People define an island as a piece of land surrounded by sea. If it is massive in size, an island becomes a continent, or if many, an enormous group of islands befalls an archipelago.
Being a piece of land in the middle of a sea, thus an island is inherently invaluable for supporting human habitation. In practice, the larger the size or number of islands becomes more valuable to the people or even a state.
Nevertheless, such a perception is not entirely correct since despite those aspects, any island is still potentially significant for both politics and economics.
The International Sea Law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), defines an island as “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide”. In this case, there is no specification about the size and number.
On the other hand, since the Law of the Sea follows the terra firma principle, thus inherently any island may have some extra zones over the sea such as the 12-mile radius of Territorial Sea (TS), 200-mile Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) or in some cases 350-mile extended Continental Shelf (CS). Hence, although an island is only a dot on the map, it still can generate 144 square miles TS and 40,000 square miles EEZ.
Furthermore, the definition becomes vague since it is difficult to distinguish between island and rocks. According to UNCLOS, rocks do not have any sea zone. But regarding the difference between those two features, the article only stipulates that “rocks cannot sustain human life”.
As such, this creates ambiguity to verify whether the feature is an island or rocks. Even more, there is neither an article nor generally accepted criteria of “what can sustain human life”. Since those two features are so different in terms of legal consequences, as a result, states certainly tend to claim their sea feature as an island rather than rocks.
Because of the significance of the “island” status, states struggle to claim it for their sea features. An extreme example is a sea feature called Rockall. Living up to its name, Rockall is merely a group of rock somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean, measuring about 25 meters wide and 31 meters long and 21 meters tall (during low tide), by which it is impossible to sustain human habitat.
Yet, Britain insisted on claiming Rockall as its island and thus may gain control over the fisheries around it. In order to support the claim, the British government sent elite troops to live on Rockall for 60 days in 1985 — just to show that Rockall is an island that “can sustain human life”.
For Indonesia, an archipelagic state with thousands of islands, perhaps losing one or two islands may not draw too much attention. Nevertheless, if it happens to the outermost islands, it will amount to a strategic loss.
The most obvious example is the loss of Sipadan and Ligitan to Malaysia. Since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2002 ruled in favor of Malaysia over those islands’ sovereignty, it also affected Indonesia’s baseline delimitation. Worse, Malaysia also claims the Ambalat block, which Indonesia is defending under the TS and EEZ regimes.
Indonesia was so optimistic in winning the Sipadan-Ligitan dispute through the ICJ that it was too late for “the plan B” — preparing Karang Unarang as the Low Tide Elevation (LTE) for the new archipelagic baseline indentation — if Sipadan-Ligitan no longer exist in the Indonesian territorial map.
In fact, the Sipadan-Ligitan case also proved Indonesia’s failure to acknowledge the strategic meaning of an island. In the international law framework, there is a notion about one’s right that asserts, “If you don’t exercise it, then you’ll lose it”.
Upon the case, ICJ viewed Malaysia as the one who “exercising more of its right upon Sipadan-Ligitan, rather than Indonesia”. The development of Malaysian resorts and the islands and promotion of Malaysia tourism were some of the evidence.
Furthermore, the Malaysian government conducted deep research over many aspects of the islands, including their history. This effort resulted in the fact that Malaysia’s former colonialist, the British government, once used the islands to breed turtle eggs.
Unexpectedly, the story was Malaysia’s key point to win its claim over the two islands. For Indonesia, it was tragic, to lose its invaluable islands because of a “turtle eggs saga”. Yet, it did happen.
Based on the case, Indonesia should review and reestablish its policy regarding its islands. If state documents, such as the White Paper, have already promulgated the policy, then this is the time to put it into action.
According to the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, Indonesia may lose about 2,000 of its islands by 2030 if there is no concrete mitigation program. This is merely from natural causes.
In addition, the human factor, which comes from illegal sand mining, will exacerbate the condition and speed up the loss. Yet again, this should be regarded more seriously, not only the failing to take the sand’s money, but more importantly, the disappearance of the precious islands from the national map.
In conclusion, the campaign to re-proclaim Indonesia’s sovereignty over its islands should become an intensive and continuous agenda. It does not necessarily mean political or military action. Instead, it requires a multidimensional approach, which is to include economic and sociocultural measures.
A simple practice is by inhabiting the outermost islands as well as growing the local economy. From the international perspective, it may generate a positive attitude, viewing Indonesia as a state that is consistently exercising its rights.
To some extent it may strengthen the national defense, emulating the Japanese “island defense” of World War II, which was and is still regarded as the most formidable system ever.
Notice: This opinion article was displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on March 20, 2012. It is also able to be searched at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 21 March 2012].
The writer holds a master’s degree in maritime policy from the University of Wollonggong, Australia; and a postgraduate diploma in arts (strategic studies) from Massey University, New Zealand.