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Pictured is the Dutch cruiser Java in Batavia Harbour in February 1942. Hopelessly outdated and unsuited to modern warfare, the ship was lost soon after in the Battle of the Java Sea along with with over 500 of the ship’s crew .

An interesting debate has recently erupted over responsibility for protecting Second World War naval wrecks in Indonesian waters.

I’ll return to that in a minute, but first the comparatively simple history and economics.

The history is that at the start of World War II, as their empires crumbled around them, the British and the Dutch (along with some United States and Australian forces) sought to resist the Japanese forces sweeping south and east across the Pacific. In the early days of the war in the Pacific theatre the contest was absurdly one sided, and the waters of Southeast Asia are littered with scores of ships and the watery graves of thousands of European sailors.

The economics is that these wrecks represent an enormous trove of near precious metals, and the financial incentive to retrieve and bring these metals to market is understandably irresistable.

Which brings us to the present time, with the Euro-centric view here and here being that these illegal salvage activities are taking place and local authorities should act to stop them, while the Indonesian view here is that yes, these activities are taking place and if the European view is that something should be done then the Europeans should do it, or at least pay the costs.

Three issues seem important here.

The first issue is the question of who is legally responsible for the ships safekeeping. On one level that is reasonably simple. If British or Dutch naval vessels sailed into Indonesian waters and started firing at Indonesian fishing boats that approached the wrecks their actions would be legally and politically indefensible. The wrecks may belong to their respective nations but in many cases they lie in Indonesian sovereign waters and these sites are thus Indonesia’s responsibility.

The second issue is then the question of who is morally responsible for the wreck’s safekeeping? That answer is less clear, and lies at the intersection of politics, power and history. Somehow I can’t see this entirely divorced from what is happening in the global order. To me, the recent United States presidential election was a tipping point that has killed off the last vestiges of the old world order of Western influence in Southeast Asia, and we have reached the stage where we are now left quibbling over legacies.

The third issue therefore is that the problem isn’t really about ships, it is about respect and memory, with the ultimate humiliation being the symbols of old world military power literally being recycled back into the basis for new world economic power. However much the old world powers may want to fight to preserve the hierarchies that sustained them the world has now irreversibly moved on, and the level of respect demanded by the old European/Christian powers will not be offered again in my lifetime.

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