Malaysia’s plans for Middle Rocks could set back bilateral ties: Experts
SINGAPORE — The Malaysian government’s plan to expand Middle Rocks into an island is an attempt to burnish its nationalist credentials and assert its sovereignty over the rocky outcrop following its withdrawal of a challenge on an international court ruling on Pedra Branca, say observers. But they added that while the move appears within Malaysia’s legal rights, carrying it out could have a negative impact on ties with Singapore.
SINGAPORE — The Malaysian government’s plan to expand Middle Rocks into an island is an attempt to burnish its nationalist credentials and assert its sovereignty over the rocky outcrop following its withdrawal of a challenge on an international court ruling on Pedra Branca, say observers.
But they added that while the move appears within Malaysia’s legal rights, carrying it out could have a negative impact on ties with Singapore.
“I see it more as seeking to re-assert Malaysian sovereignty despite dropping for good the claim to Pedra Branca,” said Associate Professor Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University, echoing the views of several experts on the announcement, made by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Wednesday.
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, added: “The announcement was primarily for domestic consumption. It shows that Malaysia has sovereignty over Middle Rocks, and that the expansion can help enhance Malaysia's maritime security.”
In its 2008 ruling on the lengthy territorial dispute between both countries, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded sovereignty over Pedra Branca to Singapore, and Middle Rocks to Malaysia. It withheld judgment on another feature in the area, South Ledge, awarding it neither to Malaysia nor Singapore, and held that it belonged to the state in whose territorial waters it is located.
Both Middle Rocks and South Ledge lie south of Pedra Branca, some 24 nautical miles to the east of the Republic.
Malaysia filed two applications last year to seek a challenge and interpretation of the ICJ's decision to award Pedra Branca to Singapore, only to inform the court on May 28 that it would discontinue the filings.
No reason was given.
Former Singapore Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar, who led the Republic’s legal team in arguing the original case before the ICJ in 2007, said on Thursday that he was not surprised by the withdrawal as Malaysia’s cases had “very weak legal basis”.
Malaysia currently has a maritime base, called Abu Bakar, on Middle Rocks, which lies at the opening of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
The base comprises a jetty linking the two main outcrops - some 320 metres apart - a lighthouse and a helipad.
In announcing Malaysia’s plans this week, Dr Mahathir said: "We have already built features there on Middle Rocks. Our intention is to enlarge it so that we can form a small island for us.
"That is something we are thinking of," he said, when pressed to clarify Malaysia's plans. "We haven't made a full decision yet."
Asked about Malaysia’s plans to expand Middle Rocks, a spokesman for Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “Sovereignty over Middle Rocks belongs to Malaysia. We have no comments on Malaysia’s activities on Middle Rocks as long as they are in accordance with international law.”
Experts told TODAY that Malaysia is at liberty to develop Middle Rocks so long as the development does not breach the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) or encroach onto Singapore’s territorial waters.
ISEAS’ Dr Mustafa, however, said: “It would be diplomatically prudent to discuss this bilaterally with Singapore as Middle Rocks is in close proximity to Pedra Branca and there is a need to delimit maritime boundaries, which was the function of the Malaysia-Singapore Joint Technical Committee convened to implement the ICJ judgement.”
Professor James Chin, a Malaysia expert from the University of Tasmania, said that building some sort of permanent settlement on maritime features like Middle Rocks is “actually very common among countries which want to assert their sovereignty”.
“Of course it will impact the relationship (with Singapore), but there is nothing Singapore can do as long as the construction is on the Malaysian side,” he added.
“This will be seen as a provocative act and will be at the back of the minds of Singapore diplomats whenever they have to negotiate anything with Malaysia.”
Associate Professor Kevin Blackburn, a historian at the National Institute of Education, added that Malaysia’s move to make Middle Rocks an island “would most likely create misunderstandings and not be good for the (bilateral) relationship”.
He added that it does not augur well for bilateral ties.
Assoc Prof Tan said Dr Mahathir’s announcement should also be seen in the light of “managing the domestic audience in the wake of the flip-flop in seeking to overturn the ICJ's ruling on Pedra Branca”.
He added that the move was an attempt by Putrajaya to “assert its nationalist credentials in enhancing the territorial sovereignty of Malaysia”.
Dr Blackburn also noted that the 2008 ICJ ruling had described Pedra Branca as “a tiny uninhabited and uninhabitable island”, or “granite island”, and Middle Rocks as “a maritime feature consisting of several rocks permanently above water”.
“Changing that status of Middle Rocks to match that of Pedra Branca would not change anything in terms of the sovereignty that it could claim in the waters around the two,” he explained, noting that both are entitled to a 12-nautical mile limit.
Only an island that can “sustain human habitation and have an economic life of its own” would be entitled to a 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
“This type of island would be almost impossible to build, as you need a supply of fresh water and vegetation,” he explained.
But the ICJ’s classification of Pedra Branca as an island rather a rock had sparked concern within the Malaysian government that Singapore might try to claim Pedra Branca as an island that can “sustain human habitation and have an economic life of its own”, and thus be entitled to the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, said Dr Blackburn.
He said this concern was expressed by Mr Kadir Mohamad, leader of the Malaysian legal team for the 2007 ICJ case, in his book “Malaysia-Singapore: Fifty Years of Contentions 1965-2015”.
Dr Blackburn further noted that Mr Kadir had mentioned about the Middle Rocks pier in his book, writing that it was ‘to symbolise the equality of status between Middle Rocks and Pedra Branca and to display a continuous presence on the rock in future” and that “the Malaysian flag will fly on the structure at all times”.
“It could be that there is, in the new Mahathir government, the desire to make Middle Rocks an island like Pedra Branca so they are certain that there is no doubt about equality in status,” said Dr Blackburn.
Dr Mahathir had a prickly relationship with Singapore in his previous 22-year tenure as Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003, landing frequent jibes and even threats at the Republic over a period that has been described as an “era of confrontational diplomacy”.
Since leading the Pakatan Harapan coalition to a stunning electoral victory on May 9, he has cancelled the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail project as part of a move to cut government spending and investment and reduce a RM1 trillion government debt.
Asked if bilateral ties were headed for a rocky patch in the wake of the recent developments, Mr Tengku Putra Haron Aminurrashid, a former United Malays National Organisation assemblyman for the Kempas district in Johor, said: “Do your background check on the man making the decisions and the relationship he has with Singapore. There lies your answer.”
An earlier version of this article misspelt the name of ISEAS Yusof Ishak fellow Mustafa Izzuddin. We apologise for the error.