Indonesia and Malaysia teetered on the edge of violence last week when an Indonesian Navy vessel was moments away from firing on a Malaysian warship that had encroached deep into Indonesian territorial waters.
This intrusion was, however, just the latest since the beginning of the year and highlights the growing tension between the two Asean neighbors in the disputed oil-rich waters of Ambalat in the Sulawesi Sea. The Indonesian Navy has stated that the Malaysian Navy and Marine Police had intruded into Indonesian waters at least 10 times since January.
Indonesia and Malaysia have in the past quarreled over disputed territory, with Indonesia losing control over Sipadan and Ligitan islands. That dispute dated back to 1982 and was settled by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2002 in Malaysia’s favor on the basis of effective occupation.
The court, however, did not decide on the question of territorial waters and maritime borders, which means that the dispute between the two countries over territorial waters and the continental shelf remains unresolved. The recent incidents in Ambalat are thus a continuation of this ongoing dispute.
The dispute over Ambalat emerged after the Malaysian government awarded a contract to Royal Dutch Shell in February 2005 to explore and develop the Ambalat deepwater oil block in the Sulawesi Sea, near Malaysia’s Sabah state and Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province. Indonesia had awarded Unocal a contract for the same block three months earlier, in November 2004.
It’s no surprise that the two countries would lay claim to the territory given the rich oil reserves locked in the seabed. Indonesia is the largest oil-producing country in Southeast Asia, with Malaysia in second place. Both sides, therefore, have enormous reasons to lay claim to the area.
Such disputes are never easy to resolve as neither side will be willing to concede territory. In matters of national sovereignty, passions can run high and politicians invariably use such opportunities to trumpet their nationalist credentials.
It’s thus reassuring to hear Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Teuku Faizasyah say that such incidents are in fact common as the dispute has yet to be resolved. Having said that, the foreign ministry and the government must move quickly to resolve the dispute and present its case as forcibly as possible.
In the Ambalat case, Malaysia seems to be dragging its heels as it put bilateral talks on hold in April 2008. The ball is therefore in Malaysia’s court and it must renew diplomacy as soon as possible rather than adding fuel to the fire by intruding into Indonesian waters.
Indonesia has every right to protect its national waters and defend its sovereignty. It’s been nearly 50 years since the two neighbors faced off militarily. It would be tragic if the current dispute over Ambalat leads to another military standoff.