How Many Islands Are There in Indonesia?

The UN has officially accepted and registered 14,752 Indonesian islands.
The UN has officially accepted and registered 14,752 Indonesian islands.

Indonesia is an archipelago nation located between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, on both sides of the equator. Because of its location between Oceania and Southeast Asia, it is considered a transcontinental country. The territory of Indonesia stretches over 1,000 miles from north to south and over more than 3,100 miles from east to west, making it the largest archipelago in the world. Some of its islands share terrestrial borders with other countries including East Timor, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. Researchers estimate that less than half of the islands here have permanent human settlements. Indonesia is officially designated as an archipelagic state by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

What Is an Archipelagic State?

An archipelagic state is recognized by the UN as a unified, national territory that includes both land and water areas. As an archipelagic nation, the waters that surround and connect all the islands of the nation are designated as the internal waterways of the particular country. This recognition gives countries the right to have autonomous control over its waters. Only 6 nations in the world have been given this distinction: Indonesia, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines.

How Many Islands Does Indonesia Have?

As an archipelago, Indonesia is made up of several thousand islands. Interestingly, however, neither researchers nor the government of this country have an accurate count of exactly how many islands make up the entire area. Its distinction as an archipelagic state means that its territory is defined under a UN international treaty. This treaty also provides the definition of an island, claiming it as an area of land that cannot be completely covered by water at high tide. Additionally, only named islands are officially registered and these islands can only be registered if at least 2 individuals are aware of their official names. Because Indonesia has unsuccessfully provided an accurate record of the number of islands making up this country, its actual territorial claim to the entire area is affected. This issue extends to the water connecting these islands.

Gaining Islands

Maintaining its status as an archipelagic state means that Indonesia must follow this internationally accepted definition. Given that its number of reported islands has changed over the years, its total number of internal waterways has also changed. At its last count in 2003, the government of Indonesia reported a total of 18,108 islands after relying on satellite images. This number represents an increase of 584 islands over the previous count. The satellite images used only took into account land area of over 322.91 square feet. The UN has officially accepted and registered only 14,752 of these 18,108 islands as part of the archipelagic state. Each of these islands has been formally named by the Indonesian government. The UN holds the Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names once every 5 years. The next conference will be held in 2021.

Losing Islands

As Indonesia continues to add islands to its territorial area with the help of advances in technological imaging processes, the country also loses islands every year. Some of the claims that the government of this country makes over certain pieces of land have been disputed over the years. In fact, in 2002, Indonesia lost some of its islands and territory due to two major events. In the first of these events, Malaysia took its particular dispute to the International Court of Justice. In this case, the court ruled in favor of Malaysia and Indonesia lost two islands: Sipadan and Ligitan. In the second case, East Timor won its independence from Indonesia. The two countries continue to share a land border, with West Timor belonging to Indonesian territory.

Why Is the Number of Islands Important?

With so many islands in its area, losing just a few seems like a minimal ordeal for the country. This assumption, however, is not true. The marine area surrounding Indonesia and its neighboring countries is considered one of the most important in the world, primarily for international trading purposes. Experts estimate that around 33% of marine vessels in the world travel through this area, known as the South China Sea, on a yearly basis. In terms of global trade, this same area sees around $5 trillion worth of goods annually.

The economies of Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam, Brunei, and South Korea, among many other countries rely on these waters. Besides maritime transport, the South China Sea also supports an active fishing industry and is home to rich natural gas and petroleum deposits. Because of this reliance, the authority of the area is of the utmost importance. In short, it is considered one of the most important marine areas in the world, which means that issues of territorial ownership are important, particularly when conflict and accidents are involved. Several cases concerning conflicts between international parties and questions of sovereignty in certain areas of the South China Sea have already been reported

Threats to Indonesian Islands

Not only does Indonesia risk losing its islands due to international disputes and judicial rulings, but the country is also taking on the growing threat of global climate change. As global climate change becomes an ever invasive part of life around the world, its direct and indirect effects are becoming more apparent. For Indonesia, one of the most threatening effects of global climate change is the rising level of ocean water. As the ocean reaches further inland, many small and low lying islands are at risk of disappearing. Researchers have estimated that Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, will most likely be flooded and uninhabitable for humans by 2030. The threat is even more serious in 2050, the year researchers say this archipelagic state will lose an additional 1,500 islands.

Lesser islands mean this country will have autonomous control over less marine area, leaving the economy open to the influence and control of more powerful nations. A loss in the area means a loss in the diverse range of natural resources currently available to Indonesia, including the fishing industry and the petroleum and natural gas reserves. Pressed with these concerns, the government of Indonesia has committed itself to registering its exact number of islands by the next UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names in 2021. It perceives this act as a viable approach to protecting its territory, resources, economy, and future.


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