Is there China’s hand in Pedra Branca dispute?

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Citing ‘new evidence’ that it has uncovered – a decade after losing the case for the ownership of the football field size rock – that it said could prove it is the rightful owner of Pedra Branca, questions are mounting on Malaysia’s real aim in the freshly ignited dispute.
The information, published in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) indicates there might be other interests at play in Malaysia’s fresh claims.

The fact that SCM claims it viewed the documents that Malaysia has filed at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) suggests the unraveling of a sinister ploy.

SCMP seems to believe the three documents provided by Malaysia at the ICJ to reopen the case, would have likely turned in Malaysia’s favor had it been provided during the 2008 case.

The newspaper said Malaysia’s new evidence should have been added in the 2008 case, indicating a sudden interest by a Beijing controlled newspaper over a case done and dusted.

SCMP further said Malaysia’s “new evidence” hangs on a letter by a Singapore’s top colonial official in 1958, a naval incident reports the same year and a map of the Lion City in 1966.

However, a Think Tank analyst in Kuala Lumpur said whatever Malaysia does, it does not have a case because the so called new evidence uncovered does not nullify the results of the 2008 case.

“If Malaysia is to claim that the rock belongs to Kuala Lumpur, it had to bid on the fact that the Island belonged to the Johore-Riau sultanate. But this argument fell apart the day the Johor Sultan ceded the Singapore to the British.

“Given the fact that Malaysia has not occupied the Island for decades, and Singapore were the occupant, and by the Law of the sea it clearly means Malaysia has no case.” said the expert.

Malaysia claimed in court documents filed on February 3 that its intentions are not to appeal against the 2008 judgment.

It said its intentions were contrary to that, as it wanted to draw the court’s attention of what has only recently become known in Malaysia, namely, that even after the 1953 correspondence, and at a point at which Singapore had become a self-governing colonial territory, Singapore, at the highest levels of its government, did not have the view that it had sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh.

These were in the court documents seen by This Week in Asia (SCMP).

China into Singapore Straits

However, another analyst said the attempt by Malaysia to create tension over the case was to open the door for China to consolidate its infamous 9-dash line in the South China Sea conflict.

The isle, which is called Pulau Batu Puteh by Malaysia, is about 40 kilometres from Singapore and 19 kilometres from the coast of Malaysia’s southern state of Johor.

With Malaysia sowing the seed of confusion over the International Court ruling, said security experts, it opens the path for China to push its 9-dash line further into Singapore Straits.

In its claims filed to the International Court of Justice, Malaysia said: “Singapore subsequently carried this appreciation into its federation as part of Malaysia in 1963, and, as it necessarily follows, that appreciation remained controlling on Singapore’s independence in 1965,” the documents said.

“It is Malaysia’s contention, informed by a close reading of the judgment in 2008 and its accompanying opinions, that the court would have been bound to reach a different conclusion on the question of sovereignty over Pedra Branca had it been aware of this new evidence.”

In its latest filing, Malaysia said a confidential telegram in 1958 sent by the then Governor of Singapore to the secretary of state for the colonies in London showed he “did not consider the island of Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh to be part of Singaporean territory”.

The governor had proposed the establishment of an international high seas corridor passing “only one mile from Pedra Branca/Pulau Puteh”.

“If he had understood, or otherwise been advised, that Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh was under Singaporean sovereignty, there would not have been a need for him to advocate the provision of an international passage so near to the island,” Malaysia’s filing said.

“The second document is a naval incident report that showed that British naval vessels – assigned to defend Singaporean waters – “did not view the waters around Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh as belonging to Singapore”.

“The incident report, addressed to the Governor of Singapore, said a British naval vessel could not assist a Malaysian vessel being followed by an Indonesian gunboat as it “was still inside Johor territorial waters”.

The third article is a map dated 1962 but with markings dated February 1966 that the Malaysian filing said showed Singapore’s territorial waters “do not extend to the vicinity of Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh”.

Malaysia’s application will need to satisfy Article 61 of the ICJ’s statute, which specifies criteria that need to be met before a revision to an earlier decision is made.