Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic state (although Canada has twice as many islands in its Arctic archipelago). East to west, the archipelago stretches more than three thousand miles (that’s more than the continental United States); it’s more than one thousand miles north to south. Its islands range in size from Borneo and Sumatra, respectively the third and sixth largest islands in the world, to tiny uninhabited islets with only local names.
How many islands? It depends on whom you ask. A 2002 survey by Indonesia’s space agency concluded that the archipelago had 18,307 islands; in 2010, Indonesia’s mapping agency offered a more conservative estimate of 13,466. The CIA’s World Factbook uses a 1996 Indonesian government figure of 17,508. Bottom line: no one knows for sure, but the answer has important geopolitical and economic implications.
The problem, of course, is defining an “island.” Do you include tidal islands, such as reefs and sand spits that are submerged at high tide? Then there’s all that earthquake and volcanic activity that keeps blowing islands apart and creating new ones.
Despite these challenges, Indonesia has good reason to count all its islands and have the United Nations officially recognize them under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Once an island is recognized, Indonesia can claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for two hundred nautical miles around it, giving it fishing and mineral rights. This brings it into conflict with neighboring countries that also claim outlying islands.
In 2002, the International Court of Justice ruled against Indonesia in a dispute with Malaysia over two islands; the same year, two islands were ceded to Timor Leste (East Timor) when it became independent. Indonesia has a long-standing spat with Australia over the maritime boundaries of the Timor Gap, the three-hundred-mile strait between Timor and the Northern Territory. The more serious territorial disputes are to the north, where Indonesia faces off against Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, and, most ominously, one of its largest investors, China. Since 2014, Indonesia has blown up hundreds of foreign fishing vessels seized while illegally fishing in its waters. It has beefed up its military presence in the Natuna Islands, northwest of Borneo, a region with large fish stocks and undersea oil and gas resources. Indonesia renamed the northernmost part of its EEZ the “North Natuna Sea,” a defiant challenge to China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
According to Susan Herawati of the Coalition of People for Justice for Fisheries (Kiara), 60 percent of Indonesia’s islands “don’t have a name or official legal status, so they can easily be taken or claimed by another country.” UN status may also protect islands from being grabbed by developers. Herawati says more than one hundred families were expelled without compensation when an island near Lombok was leased to develop a private tourist resort. Although Indonesia officially bans the private ownership of islands, several online real estate companies list islands for sale.
The Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries wants to add at least seventeen hundred islands to the UN’s approved list. The UN defines an island as a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is still exposed at high tide. That takes tidal islands off the list but leaves a question mark over low-lying islands that may be submerged as sea levels rise. The ministry team must also come up with a name known to local people (even if the island is uninhabited), and a description of the island’s history and geography.
Indonesia has strong motives to claim as many islands as it can—not so much for the islands themselves, most of which are not worth inhabiting, but for the maritime real estate all around. “This is about our identity as a nation,” Herawati told the BBC. “By clearly listing our islands then our fishermen have legal protection and rights over the islands and our ancestral seas.”