News analysis

Thumbs-up for landmark Indonesia-S'pore treaty

Observers say it is critical for upholding sovereignty and enforcing the law

Indonesian lawmakers have ratified a sea border treaty with Singapore, inked in 2014 to provide clarity on the two countries' sovereignty over the busy sea lanes of the Singapore Strait.

While their foreign ministries will still need to meet to exchange ratification instruments before the pact is in force, diplomats, politicians and maritime law experts have lauded the move.

Observers say Thursday's unanimous ratification by lawmakers was no small feat, given what had been an underachieving past couple of years for the Indonesian Parliament. It passed just three Bills last year and nine this year, both falling short of its annual target of 40.

The landmark treaty demarcates a sea border 9.45km, or 5.1 nautical miles long in waters between Changi and Batam island.

That lawmakers were able to ratify it at the very last parliamentary session of the year showed Indonesia's resolve in moving on the maritime boundary delimitation agreement, which is critical for upholding sovereignty and enforcing the law, said observers.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a statement on Thursday night, said the treaty underscores the city-state's excellent working relationship and bilateral ties with Indonesia, and demonstrates the ability of both countries to work together in areas of mutual interest.

"Singapore is prepared to exchange the instruments of ratification once Indonesia is ready to do so," added the ministry.

The treaty was first signed in September 2014 amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, the focus of overlapping claims by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Indonesia and Singapore are not party to the dispute.

The "delimiting" of maritime boundaries is conducted in reference to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), said observers.

Mr Asril Tanjung, deputy chairman of the House Commission overseeing deliberations for the treaty, said ratification provides legal clarity on sovereignty as well as the jurisdiction issues for law enforcement.

Singapore's former ambassador to Indonesia Barry Desker agreed.

"The ratification of the sea border agreement by Indonesia is significant as clearly defined borders minimise the risk of conflict, enable both parties to exercise their sovereignty over their territorial waters and could act as a confidence-building measure," he told The Straits Times yesterday.

The treaty is the third of its kind between the two countries after they first agreed on the maritime boundary along the central part of the Singapore Strait in 1973.

That was followed by another pact in 2009 on the western section, between Indonesia's Pulau Nipa and Singapore's Sultan Shoal.

The latest treaty covers the eastern section of Changi and Batam, and together, the three account for a 67.3km-long sea border in the Singapore Strait.

This means both countries have now completed their last agreement on the territorial sea boundaries between them.

What remains is an area between Pedra Branca and Bintan island, which involves Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, said Mr Leong Kah Wah, a partner at law firm Rajah & Tann, and vice-president of the Maritime Law Association of Singapore.

He said Thursday's ratification may create the momentum for trilateral negotiations to begin.

Mr Eddy Pratomo, President Joko Widodo's special envoy to negotiate Indonesia's maritime boundaries with Malaysia, told The Jakarta Post he will be meeting Malaysian officials in Kuala Lumpur next month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2016, with the headline 'Thumbs-up for landmark Indonesia-S'pore treaty'. Print Edition | Subscribe