The View From Asia

Deals, drills and declarations on Asia's contested waters

Asia News Network commentators take the measure of recent political manoeuvres that have a bearing on the region's seas. Here are excerpts.

Timor-Australia deal offers lessons

Evan Laksmana

The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

The Permanent Court of Arbitration, acting as a registry for a conciliation commission established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), announced on Sept 1 that Timor-Leste and Australia have agreed on their maritime boundary delimitation. The "package" deal would also address the legal status of the Greater Sunrise gas field (and a special regime to manage it) as well as pathways to develop and share the resources.

Despite the resolution, the parties have yet to formalise the agreement and need to negotiate some remaining issues. All the details will remain confidential until then.

The dispute and conciliation process offer salient lessons for contemporary maritime order.

On the one hand, the conciliation process is unprecedented; this is the first time it has been activated in Unclos history. It also seems to be going against the regional trend. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Taylor Fravel, only 14 per cent of 28 maritime boundary disputes in Asia have been completely resolved.

Dili and Canberra's commitment to a peaceful resolution is thus commendable. But the complexity of the dispute should also caution us from aggressively pushing the narrative of a "rules-based order" governing maritime Asia.

As Unclos does not provide clear-cut solutions to complex regional maritime boundaries, we shouldn't ignore the non-legal contexts underpinning a dispute. The road to the Timor-Australia conciliation process, after all, has been paved with resource management pressures, domestic politics and geopolitical insecurities.


The Shijiazhuang, a missile destroyer of China's People's Liberation Army Navy, arriving in the Russian port city of Vladivostok on Sept 18. The navies of China and Russia began the second stage of the Joint Sea-2017 military drills on that date in the Sea of Japan. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Unlike Australia, Timor is wholly dependent on petroleum revenue to survive. By one account, the Timor Sea Joint Petroleum Development Area contributed more than 90 per cent of Dili's budget and 70 per cent of its GDP. And yet, oil from the area might be gone by 2020 and the country's wealth fund might last only until 2025.

Unsurprisingly, Dili created new political infrastructure to deal with the dispute, including the Council for the Final Delimitation of Maritime Boundaries and a Maritime Boundary Office.

Initially, Timor's political mobilisation did not appear to have softened Canberra's position. But the opposition Labor Party recently broke the consensus by announcing it was prepared to negotiate and, should it fail, to submit to international adjudication.

Domestic politics thus facilitated the conciliation process. As did geopolitical insecurities. Washington had apparently pressured the parties to resolve the dispute with the South China Sea looming in the background.

And yet Indonesia might be the wild card here. It could complicate maritime boundary talks and "unscramble the omelet". as former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer called it. Canberra has always been concerned that agreeing to an equidistant line-based boundary with Timor may have a "knock-on" effect on its existing maritime boundaries with Indonesia.

Key to strengthen Japan-India ties

Editorial

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Maintaining maritime order from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean is a common interest of both Japan and India. In the pursuit of this strategic objective, the bilateral partnership should be strengthened.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited India and held talks with his Indian counterpart, Mr Narendra Modi. The two leaders released a joint statement reaffirming the importance of "freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded commerce" based on international laws.

It marked the 10th bilateral meeting held by the two leaders.

At a press conference, Mr Abe emphasised that he is "determined to work together with Prime Minister Modi to take the lead towards peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and the world".

In the joint statement, the two leaders pledged to boost their efforts to align the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy", which Mr Abe advocates, and the "Act East Policy", which emphasises stronger ties in Asia, advocated by Mr Modi.

In order to develop regions from South-east Asia to India and Africa, it is important for policies of both countries to bring about synergistic effects.

Under the One Belt, One Road initiative to create a huge economic zone, China is injecting a sizeable amount of funds in the development of ports in such countries as Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Chinese military vessels and submarines have also been actively operating in waters near the Indian Ocean.

India is turning its back on China's One Belt, One Road initiative, probably because India has a strong sense of wariness over China's hegemonic motives.

Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force, the US Navy and the Indian Navy held a joint drill in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean in July. To hold China's self-serving activities in check, methodically expanding maritime security cooperation between Japan, the United States and India is effective.

Drills a boon to China-Russia ties

Sun Xingjie

China Daily, China

The navies of China and Russia started the second stage of their week-long Joint Sea-2017 military drills in the Sea of Japan on Monday, following the first stage which was held two months ago in the Baltic Sea. The drills, held annually since 2012, will for the first time reach the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan's Hokkaido Island, and involve joint submarine rescue missions and anti-submarine operations.

These "firsts" and the kick-off date, which is often linked to the Sept 18 Incident, have drawn speculation from some media outlets. On Sept 18, 1931, Japanese soldiers triggered a blast on a railway line in north-east China, blamed the Chinese military for it and used it as a pretext for the invasion of China.

The truth, however, is, China's naval ambitions go beyond emotional links with a painful memory. The historical differences between Beijing and Tokyo are not likely to be settled by a naval drill in the neighbourhood, nor do they have anything to do with "Chinese muscle-flexing". China and Japan can truly reconcile only when the latter faces up to the crimes it committed against the Chinese people before and during World War II.

The Chinese navy has good reason to go farther offshore and work closely with its Russian counterpart. The Sea of Japan is not "Japan's Sea" but part of the wide ocean. From the Baltic Sea to the Sea of Okhotsk, the Chinese-Russian naval exercises are intrinsically about strengthening the strategic partnership between the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The two neighbours' regularised joint drills are more of a boon to mutual trust and regional order, and do not necessarily target a third party. Those who doubt this contention prefer to forget the fact that the United States holds a slew of annual military drills with its Asian allies in the region.

  • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 23 news media entities.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'Deals, drills and declarations on Asia's contested waters'. Print Edition | Subscribe