End in sight for Singapore waters dispute

Johor Bahru Port Last year, Singapore said Malaysia's Johor Bahru Port encroached into its waters. Credit: MMC

Malaysia and Singapore aim to end a territorial dispute over the extension of the Johor Bahru Port limits with an agreement to mutually suspend overlapping port limits and for vessels of both countries to operate in accordance with international law.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah and Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Singapore Dr Vivian Balakrishnan met to discuss the Johor Bahru Port limits off Tanjung Piai, which Singapore says encroach into Singapore Territorial Waters (STW), and the Singapore Port Limits off Tuas, according to a statement by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Foreign Ministers agreed that Malaysia and Singapore will mutually suspend the implementation of their overlapping port limits and apply their port limits in effect prior to 25 October 2018 and 6 December 2018 respectively.

“Both Foreign Ministers agreed that these measures were vital to de-escalate the situation on the ground, and pave the way for maritime boundary delimitation of the area,” noted the statement.

Malaysia and Singapore also agreed to not authorise and to suspend all commercial activities in the area; to not anchor government vessels in the area; and for Malaysia and Singapore vessels to 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 countries will also work to establish a committee chaired by the Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia, and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore for boundary delimitation which will ensure implementation of the first four recommendations within one month, and that negotiations for maritime boundary delimitation in the area will commence within one month following such implementation.

If an amicable solution on delimitation is not reached, Malaysia and Singapore may mutually agree to resort to an appropriate international third-party dispute settlement procedure on mutually agreed terms.

Singapore first protested against the Johor Bahru Port Limits last December, but Malaysia's transport minister Anthony Loke said the altered limits "are in Malaysia’s territorial sea and it is well within Malaysia’s right to draw any port limit in our territorial sea in accordance with our own national laws."

This month it emerged that the countries had been working together to try and find a resolution to the dispute, but Singapore’s acting minister for transport Vivian Balakrishnan stressed that the conflict did not affect the viability of the Tuas Terminal.

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