PUTRAJAYA: Malaysia and Singapore on Thursday (Mar 14) agreed to mutually suspend the implementation of their overlapping port limits, as part of measures to dial down tensions in a maritime dispute.
Other measures announced include the suspension of commercial activities in the area, as well as an agreement not to anchor government vessels there, said the foreign ministers of both countries in a joint press statement.
On top of that, Singapore and Malaysia vessels will operate in the area in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“The relevant agencies on both sides will work out practical modalities to avoid untoward incidents in the area,” the statement said.
The port limits in effect prior to Oct 25 and Dec 6 will now apply.
Malaysia had on Oct 25 gazetted an extension of its Johor Bahru port limits in a manner which Singapore said encroaches into its territorial waters off Tuas.
On Dec 6, Singapore extended its port limits off Tuas, and said it will not hesitate to take “firm actions” against the intrusion of Malaysian government vessels in its waters.
Singapore had also protested “provocative acts” by Malaysia in recent months, including a visit by Johor Chief Minister Osman Sapian to a Malaysian vessel parked in Singapore waters.
READ: Singapore, Malaysia maritime dispute: A timeline
Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah met in Putrajaya on Thursday morning where they outlined their commitment to resolve the maritime issues surrounding the port limits of both countries.
They agreed to establish a committee for boundary delimitation, which will ensure the implementation of the measures within one month. After that, negotiations for maritime boundary delimitation in the area will begin.
The committee will be chaired by Permanent Secretary of the Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Chee Wee Kiong and the Secretary-General of the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob. Both men headed the working group which submitted a report on the measures announced on Thursday.
“These measures taken by both countries shall be without prejudice to Malaysia’s and Singapore’s respective maritime boundary claims in the area,” said the joint statement.
If the committee is unable to reach an amicable solution on delimitation, Malaysia and Singapore may mutually agree to resort to an appropriate international third-party dispute settlement procedure on terms to be mutually agreed by the parties, the statement added.
The measures agreed on are “vital” to de-escalate the situation on the ground and pave the way for maritime boundary delimitation in the area, said the two foreign ministers in the statement.
“These measures also demonstrate the commitment of both countries to work together to preserve a strong and positive bilateral relationship on the basis of equality and mutual respect, and to resolve bilateral issues amicably in accordance with international law,” the joint statement added.
A FIRST STEP IN A LONG JOURNEY: DR BALAKRISHNAN
Speaking to Singapore media after his meeting with Mr Saifuddin, Dr Balakrishnan said the agreement to implement the measures was a positive move. However, this is only one step in a long journey to resolve bilateral issues between the two sides, he said.
If the measures are implemented, Dr Balakrishnan said the Malaysian vessels will have to leave the area. There will be no commercial activities and the situation will “revert to what it was”.
“The main objective here is to de-escalate the situation on the ground, make sure you lower the risks of untoward accidents. Once that gets done, then you set the environment right and then we can commence negotiations for delimitation,” he noted.
He added: “But you can’t have negotiations if there are things happening on the ground, or there is tension and there is a very real risk of collision or accidents. So this is an important first step but it is only a first step and it is a long journey.”
As the port limits will revert to the situation before Oct 25, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore will continue to patrol those areas in accordance with Singapore laws and UNCLOS.
Dr Balakrishnan added that if Malaysia does not respect or abide by the measures stated in Thursday’s joint press statement, then Singapore will not commence boundary negotiations.
“It is very clear cut that we’ve agreed on five items. The first four items need to be fulfilled in their entirety, then we can commence negotiations. Let’s see how things work out over the days and weeks to come,” he said.