Island sovereignty and post-colonial transition

Scholars have long remarked at the significance of islands to states as ways of projecting influence and cementing ideas of national sovereignty. In expanses of open, often featureless ocean, islands attain importance through being inherently familiar, tangible spaces. This isn’t new: Lauren Benton, for instance, describes how islands in the Atlantic ‘featured prominently in imperial planning’ from the earliest days of European colonial expansion.[1] Daniel Immerwahr devotes an entire chapter (excellently entitled ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Guano but Were Afraid to Ask’) to show how small uninhabited islands across the Pacific facilitated the growth of America’s overseas empire. Although ‘remote, rocky and rainless,’ some of these islands would later be utilised in the Second World War as part of America’s ‘island hopping’ strategy.[2]


Today, maritime tensions reveal how the humble rocky islet and coralline atoll continue to rest at the forefront of national visions for sovereignty, power, and even territorial expansion. China’s recent forays into the South China Sea show the significance of islands in bolstering—often providing physical substance to—expansionist and confrontational foreign policy. And in places where atolls and reefs prove too tenuous, artificial islands have been created, terraforming points in the ocean into concrete bunkers and tarmac runways.


Maritime Southeast Asia is a place where islands feature perhaps more than anywhere else in the world. They are embedded into the very cultural and political fabric of the region. Geographically, of course, they constitute the basis of many of Southeast Asia’s archipelagic states. In the colonial period, especially in the early twentieth century, islands were fundamental to colonial strategy. But as new arrivals to Southeast Asia in the early twentieth century, entrant colonial administrators often became concerned with laying down order in the core (often urban, populous centres) at the expense of control over periphery. Indeed, some sparsely-populated islands were ignored out of convenience, or at times even forgotten, by these lax colonial administrations. Similarly, confused and overlapping boundary delimitations between British and American colonial administrations in British North Borneo and the Philippines respectively reveal how man-made instillations (this time lighthouses rather than runways or military bases) failed to define ownership.


In this case—as detailed in my recent article in TRaNS: Trans-National and -Regional Studies of Southeast Asia—the British North Borneo Company had brazenly constructed a lighthouse on the American-owned Taganak Island in the Sulu Sea, off the northern coast of Borneo and to the south of the Philippines.[3] The lighthouse proved fundamental in ensuring the safety of vessels passing through unsafe waters and dangerous sea rocks. But with its wartime destruction and subsequent abandonment during the Second World War, Britain’s hold over the island after the war became increasingly tenuous.

Taganak Island, from Google Maps.

With the Philippines’ transition to independence in July 1946, Taganak—part of the Turtle Island shoal—came under increased scrutiny. Where the Americans were previously content with Britain administering the islands ad infinitum, the newly-decolonised Philippines sought to amend the territorial disjoint. British claims about the islands’ importance to imperial shipping and navigational signalling fell short amidst a surge of national pride and desires to unify the Philippine archipelago. When the sparsely populated islands were returned to the Philippines in 13 October 1947, many lauded the Philippines’ first successful foreign policy foray. Simultaneously, many British observers across the world bemoaned what they saw as the beginnings of imperial decline. That the ‘disintegration of the British Empire was being precipitated by the transfer of the Turtle Islands,’ as Agnes Newton Keith described, reveals, perhaps, just how important tiny islands could be to the fates of larger imperial systems.[4] Although India had transitioned to independence just months prior, it was the perceived loss of small tropical islands such as these—which had once been used for navigational signalling and as a vacationing hotspot for colonials—that heralded the point of no return.


In a wider, global context, one is reminded that escalating tensions in the South China Sea—characterised by the militarising of once-barren rocks—is perhaps just another iteration of a historical pattern of trying to extend control through clutching onto islands. Looking at past instances of contested island sovereignty, however, it is clear that instillations and buildings constructed upon empty islands are by no means solid markers of sovereignty or ownership.


Notes: [1] Lauren Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 35. [2] Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States (London: The Bodley Head, 2019), p. 47 [3] David R. Saunders, ‘Dimming the Seas around Borneo: Contesting Island Sovereignty and Lighthouse Administration amidst the End of Empire, 1946–1948,’ TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia, 7.2 (2019), pp. 1–27. [4] Agnes Newton Keith, White Man Returns (Kota Kinabalu: Opus Publications, 2008 [1951]), pp. 245-6.