Malaysia has signalled its keen sovereign interest by completing a maritime base just a kilometre away from Pedra Branca, and hopes to tighten its sea borders in the area where frequent trespasses by Vietnamese fishing boats have hurt the livelihoods of Malaysian fishermen, officials and analysts say.
The Sultan of Johor officially opened the maritime base on the Middle Rocks on Tuesday, after some five years of construction at a cost of RM61.5 million (S$19.5 million). The rocky outcrop was awarded to Malaysia in 2008 by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which handed Pedra Branca to Singapore at the same time.
Analysts note that the Abu Bakar Maritime Base should be welcomed as a positive development in maritime security.
"There is undoubtedly a signal that Malaysia is serious about its sovereignty claims around that stretch of water. But both sides should turn this into a positive development to try to address common security concerns," S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Oh Ei Sun told The Sunday Times.
The base has a 316m-long jetty, a helipad and a lighthouse, and is manned by 17 personnel. Abu Bakar is the first sultan in the Johor ruling family that began in the 19th century.
Johor's Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar on his official Facebook page said the facility was "aimed at safeguarding Malaysia's sovereign territory and waters, and for conducting marine scientific research".
Malaysia's coast guard, the base's main operator, said that since 2015, it has detained 11 Vietnamese fishing boats and their 144 crew, and estimate there were hundreds of other vessels encroaching into Malaysian waters.
"We hope the new Abu Bakar Maritime Base at Middle Rocks will help us monitor and act against illegal activities in Johor waters," Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency southern region director Adon Shalan was reported as saying by The Star.
The top brass of the armed forces and the National Security Council had briefed the ruler last Monday on efforts to protect Johor's international borders. "The Sultan decided he wanted to visit the next day. That's why it was so sudden. But the base itself did not pop up overnight," a source close to the palace told The Sunday Times.
Pedra Branca was in the news in recent months after Malaysia on June 30 filed an application before the ICJ to declare that the waters surrounding the island remain within its territorial waters - a move Singapore said was puzzling, without merit, and one it will oppose.
The challenge comes months after Malaysia filed a separate application to revise the same 2008 ruling in February, citing newly discovered facts. Singapore filed its written observations in response to the revision application with the ICJ in May.