Diplomacy in Harmony: Malaysia and Indonesia’s Joint Border Resolutions

Significant strides have been made recently in the resolution of enduring land disputes between Malaysia and Indonesia. In recent months, the barriers that impeded progress have begun to recede. Both nations are determined to reconcile their differences, pool their resources in a collaborative effort, and stand united against external pressures, particularly the assertive actions of China in Southeast Asia. Additionally, there has been a noticeable increase in the soft power of Australia, India, and China within the region.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi of Indonesia has revealed plans to conclude negotiations on three specific land border segments with Malaysia in the Kalimantan-Sabah region by the end of this year. This development marks the end of a 24-year negotiation process for segments including Pulau Sebatik, Sinapad-Sesai, and West Pillar-AA 2. Notably, agreements for these segments were solidified between 2017 and 2019. Furthermore, in June of the previous year, after 18 years of negotiations, both nations reached an agreement on two maritime border segments in the Sulawesi Sea and the southern Malacca Strait.

Emphasizing the significance of promptly resolving border issues, Retno highlighted the importance of adhering to international laws, specifically citing the UNCLOS 1982 for maritime borders. Both Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and his Malaysian counterpart, Dato Seri Utama Haji Mohamad bin Haji Hasan, have expressed their commitment to addressing these border disputes, including those pertaining to the Ambalat Block.

Following the 43rd Malaysia-Indonesia General Border Committee meeting in Jakarta, Subianto emphasized their commitment to tackle challenges with a familial and neighborly approach, expressing confidence that most issues are on the verge of resolution. Similarly, Hasan highlighted the fraternal ties between the two nations and expressed optimism regarding the imminent conclusion of the border dispute negotiations.

In June 2023, during a meeting in Putrajaya, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim reiterated their dedication to addressing the border issue. However, the discussions did not extend to the maritime boundaries in the Ambalat Block, a contentious area spanning 15,235 square kilometers in the Sulawesi Sea, adjacent to Malaysian waters.

Malaysian officials indicated that the recent maritime boundary agreement did not include the Ambalat Block, known as Blocks ND6 and ND7. The Ambalat issue revolves around overlapping territorial waters, particularly concerning the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, as outlined in the 1982 UNCLOS. This overlapping jurisdiction has been a source of contention since 1979 when Malaysia was accused of breaching the Continental Shelf Boundary agreement of 1969, which acknowledged Ambalat as part of Indonesia’s territory.

The question arises: what has spurred the recent progress in talks? One significant factor is China’s claims in the South China Sea. China is acting more aggressively in the region. There is a distinct divergence in how Malaysia and Indonesia respond to Beijing’s maritime assertions. Kuala Lumpur has adopted a robust stance, actively advancing the development of the Kasawari gas field and deploying military jets. In contrast, Indonesia appears to proceed with more caution, a stance that some experts link to potential Chinese investments.

Malaysia maintains a steadfast commitment to safeguarding its interests in the Luconia Shoals, particularly in developing the substantial Kasawari gas field, estimated to contain 3 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas resources. This resolute position aligns with Malaysia’s broader approach to addressing China’s overlapping claims in disputed waters.

Conversely, Indonesia has previously expressed concerns about perceived Chinese incursions into its waters. In 2019, diplomatic notes were lodged opposing what Indonesia considered the encroachment of Chinese fishing vessels in the Natuna Sea. Although Indonesia claims the Natuna Sea as part of its exclusive economic zone, China asserts historic fishing rights over portions of it. Notably, Indonesia is not part of the South China Sea dispute involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.

Yan Yan, an expert in maritime issues, underscores the complexity of the situation, noting that until the maritime boundary is definitively settled, each state maintains jurisdictional claims over the area. Consequently, Malaysia’s unilateral actions in oil and gas exploration within the disputed area, before a final resolution on maritime boundaries, could be considered an infringement on the sovereign rights of the other party and may impact the outcome of future dispute settlements.

Malaysia and Indonesia are acutely aware of the current global order, presenting an opportunity for them to stand together and forge a strong bloc. Collaborating to peacefully resolve land disputes signifies a commitment to unity. Therefore, the prospect of a comprehensive resolution in land disputes, including the Ambalat Block, is now more pressing than ever.