The construction of borders and sovereignty

The construction of borders and sovereignty
15 September 2021

Diplomatic contacts and negotiations between different polities are closely tied to large questions of power—either based on land or the control over people— as well as to the making of the polity itself. The concept of sovereignty—both as a historical political idea and as an analytical concept—can help to contextualise these political processes. The idea of what a polity was consisted of also triggers questions of border making, and to what degree a land, kingdom or nation was defined by territorial limitations, through control of certain groups, or in other ways altogether. Sovereignty as a concept is in one way firmly rooted in a European tradition, but it has even been argued that Hugo Grotius added a South East Asian element to it. Even within the European tradition, its meaning has been contested and might best be considered as a political tool rather than any reflection of territorial or practical reality. The theoretical concept too has shifted widely from its initial use in sixteenth-century France to bolster royal power, to its use by Hobbes to argue for the unity of the state in the seventeenth century, to eighteenth-century understandings of sovereignty as a social contract also applying to individuals. Considering the concept’s background, one might question to what degree looking for it, and defining it, is helpful for a researcher studying a non-European contexts: does it actually obscure more than it explains? In this conversation, three researchers suggest that we trace diplomatic conflicts and negotiations as a clash or a meeting respectively between ideas of sovereignty that were different. To further nuance the issue of power, they suggest considering the existence of multiple and parallel systems of sovereignty not only in the comparison between regions but also within them, making encounters with foreign systems even more complex. In this conversation, Stefan Eklöf Amirell, Peter Borschberg and Hans Hägerdal reflect on how territorialism and processes of border-making functioned in maritime South East Asia. They discuss both what concepts of sovereignty were influential in this time and place, and what these concepts looked like.

In an initial comment, Peter Borschberg introduces the conceptual history of the term sovereignty itself, and how that has been approached in the field of diplomacy. As he then shows, in South East Asia there were not rarely multiple forms of sovereignty and ‘adat’ simultaneously at work. This includes the so-called Mandala system, in which a strong control in a centre then weakens the further out you get, and spiritual or mystical authority. Understanding this plurality, and the ways in which these forms of authority interacted, might be a crucial first step to approach inter-polity interaction in South East Asia.

For a long time, diplomacy in South East Asia has been dominated by a Eurocentric narrative of sovereignty. That is, the research has been framed by certain assumptions about the organizing principles of the state (and their evolution during the early modern period), culture and history-specific political values, the growth of sovereignty as an idea, the nominal equality of sovereign players, as well as the idea of a balance of power. In its most basic formulation, sovereignty was historically defined as the princeps non agnoscens superoriorem, ‘a prince who acknowledges no other [worldly] superior.’ The idea of sovereignty as we generally recognize it today stems from the French Wars of Religion during the second half of the sixteenth century, and can be specifically traced to the Catholic royalist Jean Bodin who identified sovereignty as an indivisible package of implied rights. Though he was mainly interested in discussing the situation in the French monarchy, he claimed sovereignty to be a universal organizing principle of the state. It is the indivisibility of the package and the supposed universality of the principle that made sovereignty such a compelling and appealing idea.

Sovereignty was an evolving concept in the early modern period and it is questionable whether even in Europe there was really a consistent or uniform understanding of what it implied over and beyond a package of rights. These rights, moreover, are associated with France’s context of feudal rule, institutions, and arrangements. In early modern Europe, the nobility was deemed to have been both vertically and horizontally organized: vertically (or hierarchically) stratified within a sovereign territory, and horizontally when considering the nominal co-equal status of full sovereigns.

In the case of Southeast Asia, statecraft was partially conditioned by different ecologies (islands, mainland, tropical, arid) and of course historically and institutionally from Europe. Such differences found expression in attitudes toward land and agriculture, but also in mobility and identity. It is questionable whether sovereignty was the main organizing principle of a polity in Southeast Asia, and even if we are inclined to accept it as such, then it hardly represented a single and indivisible package of rights. Polities in South East Asia were had different centres of authority and were legitimized by religion, legend or mysticism. The rulers found themselves in a hierarchical but fluid relationship and could and did acknowledge more than one (tributary) overlord at the same time. The emphasis placed by rulers on people and on gaining more followers underscores the personal relationship between the ruler and his subjects. A good example here is the Telaga Batu inscription dating from late seventh century Srivijaya. The inscription, which echoes (Indic) ideas of supernatural powers and governance, warns all those irrespective of rank and status who fail to obey the ruler that they will be punished by the curse of the oath that they have sworn to him.

Another example is the covenant of Demang Lebar Daun found in the Sulalat-us-Salatin (Malay Annals). Demang Lebaur Daun and his successors (subjects) would be bound to obey the ruler even if he is oppressive and evil; but if the ruler or his descendants departs from the original conditions of the compact not to disgrace one’s subjects and scold them with evil words, then the ruler’s (mystical) right to rule (daulat) lapses and the subjects are free from their obligations of obedience. This agreement between Demang Lebar Daun and his king, San Sapurba, is sometimes known as the ‘Malay Social Contract’. It stakes out a very personal relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Now, the European idea of the social contract assumes that the individual entrusts his personal, natural rights to the ruler in return for protection of the person and property, but these elements are absent in the legend of Demang Lebar Daun. Moreover, since no idea of property is involved, the idea of location or even territoriality would also be largely absent in this mutual relationship. Thus relationship with the ruler is a deeply personal one, irrespective of where king and subject are located, and the relationship knows no spatial boundaries. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Malay rulers focused on their followers or on mobilizing labour and did not emphasize territoriality and borders in a European sense well into the nineteenth century. This is a point that the Australian academic Anthony Milner, for example, has advanced in several of his studies. In other parts of mainland Southeast Asia (such as in Dai Viet) or the eastern Malay Archipelago (such as Timor) ideas about spaces and borders appear to have taken another trajectory.

One approach to the issue of sovereignty in an Asian context, as suggested by Stefan Eklöf Amirell is to avoid presupposing a strict division between European and South East Asian concepts of sovereignty. Instead, as he does, we might consider the use and meaning invested in the various local terms, and how they might reveal more similarities than differences to the European and North American counterparts.

The first and pivotal article of the Bates Treaty, which was signed in 1889 between the U.S. and the Sultante of Sulu, stated that the ‘sovereignty of the United States over the whole archipelago of Jolo and its dependencies is declared and acknowledged’. It later transpired, however, that the Tausug version of the treaty had a rather different meaning. The Tausug words used in the treaty to correspond to the English ‘sovereignty’ was gaus and baugbog, which meant respectively power and protection. According to the Sultan’s first minister, Haji Butu, who had a central role in the negotiations, the article was understood as meaning that if any other nation would interfere with the population of Sulu, the United States had the duty and right to interfere. The United States is the supreme power in the Sulu Archipelago and the supreme protection of the Sulus, Haji Butu explained several years after the signing of the agreement.

There may not have been a word in Tausug that directly corresponded with the term sovereignty, but the idea of exercising sovereignty—in the sense of having unlimited and supreme power over a country and its population—was certainly conceptualised and was linked to the origins of the Sultan’s dynasty and the conversion of Sulu to Islam in the fifteenth century. However, just as the Spanish before the Americans had exercised but nominal power over Sulu—and not for more than three hundred years, as the Spanish claimed, but for less than fifty years—it seemed unimaginable in 1899 that the Sultan would relinquish his sovereignty to a foreign colonial power.

Hans Hägerdal argues that diplomacy should be understood as clashes and meetings between multiple sovereignties. Thereby we would take seriously the local systems that allow for such a plurality. The moment when foreign, colonial powers try to enter such systems, it was not uncommon for the inhabitants to be tied to the land in a new manner. Using the example of the spice sultanates, he shows the existence of such multiple and fluid centres of authority, and the confusion and trouble it caused colonial powers wanting to impose rule and,  perhaps foremost, their own system of taxation.

The spice sultanates were segmentary states in the sense that the sultans resided in a hallowed centre but had limited power over the various soa (settlement units) which stood under their own bobato (chiefs). Similarly autonomous were the sangaji (governors) in the outlying parts of the sultanate who in turn lorded over various kimelaha (lords of settlements) in Buru, Halmahera, the Papuan Islands, and so on. Even less cohesive were the Siwa-Lima bonds encountered in Central and South Maluku, which shifted with the circumstances. The claimed spheres of the sultanates shifted a lot during the centuries. In his will from 1545, the Sultan of Ternate identified his realm as Ternate, Moti, Makian, Kayoa and Moro (North Halmahera); however, around 1590 the claimed territories included parts of Sulawesi, Mindanao, Ambon, Banda, Solor, Bima, parts of New Guinea.

In the first contracts between the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Ternate Sultanate of 1607–09, some of these lands are again omitted. Even allowing for diplomatic blustering, there were clearly no fixed borders as outlying territories paid or refused tribute as the political situation developed. This fluidity presented a challenge to European powers who co-opted the sultanates and tried to grasp the indigenous perceptions of power and authority, especially in view of their effort to regulate spice production.

At the same time, however, colonial influences at length tended to strengthen the sultanates in various ways. By being diplomatically treated as kings in European tradition, the rulers increasingly became something more than lords in pre-colonial segmentary states. The European need for partners with a steady power base increasingly detached the sultans from the old consensus-based forms of governance during the seventeenth century. Similarly the main rajas on Kisar and Wetar tried to expand their authority in previously stateless societies with VOC backing, with shifting success.