News analysis

Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok maritime 'deal to share' sets an example

Amid heightened tensions caused by overlapping maritime claims in Asia in recent months, business is humming as usual in one corner of South-east Asia where maritime borders have not been settled.

In 1979, Malaysia and Thailand signed an agreement to jointly explore, as equal partners, oil and gas in a disputed offshore zone in the Gulf of Thailand.

Called the Joint Development Area or JDA, the zone is located off Malaysia's Kelantan state and Thailand's southernmost provinces of Narathiwat and Pattani.

At 7,250 sq km, the wedge-shaped JDA is about 10 times the size of Singapore.

This sharing of resources - instead of trading accusations or carrying out unilateral actions that alarm neighbours - could point the way forward to cooling tensions in maritime spats, observers say.

The JDA, now in operation for 37 years, "stands as a testimony to the use of functional cooperation in the absence of agreed maritime boundary", former Thai deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathi- rathai wrote in The Nation newspaper on July 13. This was the day after the arbitral tribunal ruling on Manila's case against Beijing's expansive claims in the South China Sea.

Mr Surakiart gave other examples - Malaysia and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding for oil and gas exploration and development in 1992; Australia and East Timor in 2002 signed the Timor Sea Treaty which established the Joint Petroleum Development Area; and in the early 2000s, China and Vietnam together delimited their boundary and signed an accord for a joint fishing area in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The JDA "is one positive option as a way forward for peaceful cooperation, and demonstration of friendship and mutual trust", said Mr David Han, research analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

To develop the JDA, the Malaysia-Thai Joint Authority (MTJA) was set up in 1990. The MTJA's website carries the tagline, "Brothers drinking from the same well". "The MTJA prides itself as being one of the world's first to implement this unique cooperation between two countries," it said.

The exploration and production arms of Malaysia's Petronas and Thailand's PTT are heavily involved in the JDA, along with international firms with contracts for dozens of ongoing projects.

By mid-2014, 27 gas fields have been discovered with some with "minor oil accumulations", the MTJA said on its website. Gas from the JDA is landed by pipeline in Songkhla, southern Thailand, for use by both countries. Malaysia transfers its share of natural gas via another pipeline into Kedah.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2016, with the headline Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok maritime 'deal to share' sets an example. Subscribe