Singapore and Malaysia yesterday agreed to jointly suspend overlapping port claims, saying this was vital to end a stand-off which has seen at least one collision in waters off Tuas since the dispute surfaced.
A joint statement by Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah, after they met yesterday, said both countries will mutually suspend the implementation of their overlapping port limits with immediate effect.
Malaysia and Singapore will instead return to their port limits prior to Oct 25 and Dec 6 last year, respectively, undoing the overlap, and as a step to start talks to delimit their maritime boundary in the area.
The measures, both said, "demonstrate the commitment of both countries to work together to preserve a strong and positive bilateral relationship on the basis of equality and mutual respect, and to resolve bilateral issues amicably in accordance with international law".
Malaysia had on Oct 25 gazetted an extension to the Johor Baru port limits beyond territorial claims made in its 1979 map, and anchored government vessels in the area.
On Dec 6, Singapore extended its port limits to the extent of its territorial waters in response.
Yesterday's meeting followed one by the ministers in Singapore on Jan 8 to de-escalate the situation and find a way forward to resolve the matter.
The port limits suspension was one of five recommendations both sides agreed to. They will also:
•Suspend and not authorise any commercial activities in the area;
•Not anchor government vessels in the area;
•Have their vessels operate in the area "in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos)"; and
•Set up a joint committee to ensure the first four measures are implemented within one month, and that talks to delimit maritime boundaries in the area start within a month after that.
Dr Balakrishnan told Singapore media the agreement is "a very important first step" to resolve the issue.
"Their ships would leave, the port limits will revert to the situation before Oct 25, and we will continue to patrol those areas in accordance with our laws and in accordance with Unclos. So there will be lowered risk of incidents," he said.
"And then we can sit down, we can commence the process of negotiations for delimitation."
The joint committee will be led by Singapore's Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Chee Wee Kiong and Malaysia's Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob, who co-chaired the working group behind the recommendations.
Datuk Saifuddin told a joint press conference "both countries have demonstrated a deep commitment to reach an amicable solution".
Added Dr Balakrishnan: "All of these measures are going to be carried out without prejudice to our respective maritime boundary claims in the area."
The joint statement also said that "in the event that the committee is unable to reach an amicable solution on delimitation, Malaysia and Singapore may mutually agree to resort to an appropriate international third-party dispute settlement procedure on terms to be mutually agreed by the parties".
Both sides also discussed the 1962 Water Agreement. Their attorneys-general will continue discussions to better understand each other's position on the matter.
Dr Balakrishnan also met Transport Minister Anthony Loke and Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali to discuss bilateral cooperation.