Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Brinkmanship and Deterrence Success during the Anglo-Indonesian Sunda Straits Crisis, 1964-1966

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Brinkmanship and Deterrence Success during the Anglo-Indonesian Sunda Straits Crisis, 1964-1966

Article excerpt

Britain and Indonesia approached the brink of war at the height of the Sunda Straits Crisis in September 1964. Using newly released declassified archival records, this study reviews the supposed British deterrence success. The factors behind successful Indonesian deterrence during the crisis contradict the prevalent view that statesmen should refrain from brinkmanship since they are unlikely to achieve their political goals at minimum costs to themselves.

The low-intensity conflict known as Confrontation (1963-66) between Indonesia and Malaysia and its Commonwealth allies--Britain, Australia and New Zealand--resulted from an Indonesian attempt to forestall the formation of the new state of Malaysia, which Jakarta viewed as a neo-colonial creation intended to contain its influence. To counter the threat on their doorstep, Indonesian authorities applied a brinkmanship strategy of progressively raising tensions, combining diplomatic manoeuvres with carefully calibrated military measures to gain international support for their foreign-policy goals of isolating Malaysia and removing the British presence from the region. (1) However, Confrontation proved an unsustainable exercise in military coercion that exacerbated Indonesian economic weakness without fulfilling the objective of foiling the formation of Malaysia. Confrontation was finally abandoned in 1966 when Jakarta made peace with Kuala Lumpur.

The main arena of conflict during Confrontation was concentrated along the Indonesian-Malaysian border on the island of Borneo. The violence there was limited to frequent small-scale border dashes, but events threatened to escalate out of control when Jakarta expanded the conflict to West Malaysia in July 1964. In apparent retaliation, Britain challenged Indonesia's maritime boundaries in September by passing a Royal Navy task force through the Indonesian-claimed Sunda Straits between Sumatra and Java. The resulting Sunda Straits Crisis has been dubbed by historians as 'the most tense period' and 'the high-water mark of confrontation'. (2) A naval clash was averted when Indonesia allowed the British warships to pass through its claimed waters, albeit via a longer route through the Lombok Straits.

Using newly released declassified government records from the British archives, supplemented by recently published United States diplomatic records and the Australian and New Zealand official histories of the Confrontation, this article reconstructs the tense events of September 1964. Based on a comprehensive analysis of the official records, it goes beyond the cursory historical treatments of the crisis published thus far to reassess the validity of the conclusions drawn by scholars on what could be considered the British equivalent of the Tonkin Gulf Incident. Although Britain successfully deterred Indonesia from further escalating hostilities during Confrontation, success was bought at the price of conceding its cherished principle of asserting the right of innocent passage for the Royal Navy through Indonesian-claimed waters for the duration of the conflict.

This study first reappraises the historiography of the Sunda Straits Crisis. It then traces its origins and course, shedding light on this obscure but important chain of events. It argues that both Britain and Indonesia achieved deterrence successes on separate but related issues. Jakarta refrained from further escalating tensions but it also successfully deterred Britain from engaging in provocative naval manoeuvres in Indonesian-claimed waters. The article concludes by analysing the factors behind Indonesia's successful deterrence and the implications for our understanding of brinkmanship.

Historiography of the Sunda Straits Crisis

Despite intense media interest during the tense weeks of September 1964, the political manoeuvres and military posturing behind the Sunda Straits Crisis were largely shielded from public scrutiny. …

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