Island-Building in the Singapore Strait: Is it Necessary?

In 2008, the International Court of Justice awarded an insignificant rock east of the Singapore Strait, known to the Singaporeans as Pedra Branca and to the Malaysians as Batu Puteh, to Singapore.

Just a kilometer away are Middle Rocks, placed under Malaysian sovereignty. A third outcropping, known as South Ledge, went unadjudicated by the world court, rejecting Singapore’s contention that the island republic owned all three.

Last May, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, apparently taking his cues from China’s island-building ambitions in the South China Sea, has set out to muddy the water by announcing that his government would construct an artificial island near Middle Rocks.

Mahathir who announced he was dropping opposition to the ICJ decision on Pedra Branca, didn’t give any reasons for his plans, which so far show no signs of being carried out. But on returning last May to the premiership he held for 22 years that ended in 2003, he has raised several bones of contention with Singapore, with which he has long had a prickly relationship.’

But is island-building really necessary? Certainly, it is pertinent for the two countries to discuss drawing a maritime boundary over building artificial islands in the Singapore Strait. If the maritime boundary is not delimited between these two nations, the maritime jigsaw puzzle in the Singapore Strait won’t end anytime soon

Ongoing Dispute

Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge are maritime features in the northern part of the Strait of Singapore, not far from the southeastern coast of the Malaysian state of Johor and Indonesia’s Bintan Island. When the Anglo-Dutch Treaty was signed in 1824, the British pledged not to dominate islands south of the Strait of Singapore, acknowledging Dutch overlordship over the territory, effectively placing the three specks Ledge under colonial British influence.

These maritime features later became a matter of dispute between two of its former protectorate and colonies, British Malaya, now Malaysia, and Singapore respectively.

The ICJ effectively ended the dispute between Malaysia and Singapore on sovereignty over Pedra Branca. Before 2008, Singapore could not make any maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea as its mainland is totally surrounded by Johor in the west and in the east. To the south, Singapore shares its maritime borders with Indonesia’s Batam and Bintan islands.

These are the ensuing disputes as a result of the 2008 ICJ decision:

  1. The sovereignty over maritime areas around Pedra Branca;
  2. The question of sovereignty over South Ledge.

These ensuing disputes should be resolved according to the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (LOSC). Both Malaysia and Singapore are State-parties to the LOSC.

(a) The Sovereignty over Maritime Areas Around Pedra Branca

If Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore and the waters surrounding it remain with Malaysia, Singapore could not make any territorial sea claims in the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, if Singapore’s sovereignty over Pedra Branca also includes maritime areas around the rock, Singapore has the right to claim up to 12 nautical miles of territorial sea from the baseline measured from Pedra Branca as clearly spelt out in Article 121 (3) LOSC.

This would obviously overlap with both territorial seas claimed by Malaysia and Indonesia in that area. Singapore may not be able to extend claims for an exclusive economic zone as Pedra Branca in itself is not an island, but a mere rock that could not sustain human habitation on its own. ‘Pedra Branca’ literally means ‘white rock’ in Portuguese.

Pedra Branca (Singapore) and Middle Rocks (Malaysia)

(Source: Rusli, 2014)

If such a claim takes place, it is advisable for both nations to come up with a way to draw maritime boundary lines equitably so as to avoid future disputes.

(b) The question of sovereignty over South Ledge

In 2008, the ICJ did not make any clear remaks on sovereignty over South Ledge, a low tide elevation maritime feature located not too far away from Middle Rocks as shown in Figure 2.

South Ledge on the other hand belongs to the state in the territorial waters of which it is located. As such, the sovereignty over this low-tide elevation might rightfully be with either Malaysia or Singapore. However, there are also arguments that Indonesia may also put its claim over South Ledge as Bintan Island is located not too far away from this maritime feature.

Should Malaysia construct an artificial island on Middle Rocks?

This proposed plan has its own merits as it would fortify Malaysia’s sovereignty in that maritime area, which is part of an important sea line of communication of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. However, is there a need for Malaysia to ‘fortify its sovereignty’ in areas clearly under its rule?

Unlike Singapore, Malaysia could still claim an EEZ in the South China Sea measured from the Johor mainland located not too far away.

As the current government claims itself to be burdened with great financial liabilities, focus should be on reducing government expenditure through sustainable spending. Instead of constructing an artificial island on Middle Rocks that would obviously cost millions of dollars, it would be more viable for Malaysia to use its resources to resolve overlapping maritime boundary disputes in that area with Singapore and Indonesia. Malaysia should also work towards securing its sovereignty over South Ledge.

Now that the Malaysian government has withdrawn its application for revision, Pedra Branca remains with Singapore. It is time for Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore to move forward in resolving boundary disputes in one of the most important chokepoints in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore shipping route.

Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli (Ph. D) is an associate professor at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a visiting professor at School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.

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