Sovereign boundaries are important to the construction of a nation-state, in defining its national identity, staking claims to natural resources and in determining citizenship.
Competing claims over territories can become the source of friction between nations, and heightened tensions carry the risk of boiling over into conflicts.
One ongoing dispute is over the South China Sea, which China claims almost all of, but is also contested by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, either in whole or in part.
Much of the contested areas lie around the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, which – while unexplored – are believed to be potentially rich in oil and other natural resources. As seen there, competing territorial claims can become thorns in bilateral and multilateral ties , with tense stand-offs threatening to disrupt shipping traffic in one of the world’s busiest waterways.
Closer to home, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have been recently embroiled in a dispute over territorial waters off Tuas, with Malaysian government vessels making intrusions into seas which the Republic regards as its own.
Malaysia has also announced last year that it wants to reclaim the rights to manage its airspace over Southern Johor, which Singapore has been providing air traffic services in, citing national and sovereign interests.
Here is a closer look at both issues:
Many countries have their airspace, or at least a part of it, managed by other countries. But this in no way impinges on their sovereign claim to the skies within their borders. Why is this so?
To ensure the safety of commercial aviation, the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which came into being in 1947, has been “dividing up” the skies.
This is done by designating Flight Information Regions (FIRs), which are based solely on technical and safety considerations to ensure air traffic flows smoothly and efficiently.
From the moment a plane leaves the tarmac until it lands, the aircraft is closely tracked and guided by air traffic controllers, and is “passed” between air traffic controllers of one FIR to another.
FIRs cross national boundaries. It is possible then for one country to provide air traffic management services in its own airspace and also parts of the skies of neighbouring states, while it makes no sovereign claim to the latter in doing so.
In December last year, Malaysia announced that it wanted to take back the management of airspace over Southern Johor, which Singapore has been providing air traffic service in for decades. This was formalised under a 1974 agreement signed between the countries.
One reason stated by Malaysia is its objection to new flight landing procedures that Singapore has implemented at Seletar Airport, which it claims impose height restrictions on buildings and stunts developments in the Pasir Gudang area.
Singapore, however, has debunked this, noting that the new Instrument Landing System (ILS) uses the exact same flight path which aircraft landing at Seletar have used all along. The ILS allows pilots to land more safely in inclement weather, compared with a visual approach.
Amid the tensions, Malaysia declared a permanent restricted area in the airspace over Pasir Gudang for the purpose of military activities. What this meant was that flights from any country, including Malaysia, would need the prior approval of the Royal Malaysian Air Force to operate in that zone between 2,000 and 5,000 feet.
This would have forced flights operating to and from Seletar Airport to go up and down close to the airport to traverse above the restricted area.
Following negotiations, both sides have agreed to mutually suspend the new measures – for Singapore, the implementat ion of the ILS, and, for Malaysia, the restricted area in the Pasir Gudang airspace – while officials thrash out the issues.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in Parliament last month said Singapore fully respects Malaysia’s sovereignty over its airspace. But any changes to the management of the airspace must be done in accordance with ICAO rules, requirements and decisions, and must also enhance safety and efficiency, and benefit airspace users, he added.
Disputes over sovereign boundaries, when they boil over into military conflict or result in unmendable diplomatic fractures, tend to put both sides at a losing end. No country is an island and, in an increasingly interconnected and globalised world, strong bilateral and multilateral relationships facilitate trade and the cross-border movement of goods, services, information, people and business.
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Discussions on air navigation arrangements must fundamentally be based on technical and operational considerations, he noted. Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore takes “very seriously” the air traffic management responsibilities it has been entrusted with by the ICAO and will continue to invest in enhancing capabilities to ensure the highest standards of safety and efficiency.
Still, what is the impact of Malaysia reclaiming the management of its airspace?
While it is preliminary to say, experts have said that a drastic reduction in Singapore’s FIR would have an impact on the ability of air traffic controllers to efficiently manage flights going in and out of the Republic’s airports, leading to flight delays and slower growth. This could undermine Singapore’s position as an air hub.
On Oct 25 last year, Malaysia unilaterally extended the Johor Baru Port Limits, encroaching into waters Singapore regards as its own. The move was followed by intrusions by Malaysian government vessels into the Republic’s waters off Tuas and, in February, there was a collision between one of these ships, Polaris, and the Greek carrier Pireas.
In what has been described by Singapore as a provocative act, Johor Menteri Besar Osman Sapian in January also made an unauthorised visit to Marine Department Malaysia vessel Pedoman, which was anchored illegally in Singapore’s waters off Tuas.
Amid the tensions, both countries have traded diplomatic notes, protests and official statements, with the dispute playing out in newspapers and TV reports. On Dec 6 last year, Singapore also extended its port limits to the full limits of its territorial waters.
So which country has a rightful claim to the disputed waters?
Within its own territorial waters, countries are free to demarcate the port limits, which helps make clear where port activities such as bunkering take place. Ships that call at the port also park within the demarcated zone. In this case, the disputed waters have not been officially demarcated by Singapore and Malaysia.
But, for more than 20 years, Singapore has been exercising jurisdiction within them, with security vessels patrolling in the area, and Malaysia has never made any protest or staked a claim on the area.
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the move to lay claim to the waters is “out of the blue”.
The new Johor Baru port limits also go beyond what Malaysia has been claiming as its own waters in a 1979 map, which Singapore has consistently rejected, he said at a press conference last December.
The tense stand-off, however, saw a turnaround last month, when both countries agreed to jointly suspend overlapping port claims,as a step to commence talks to delimit the maritime boundary in the area.
This means that both countries will return to their port limits prior to Oct 25 and Dec 6 last year, undoing the overlap.
MAY COOLER HEADS PREVAIL
Disputes over sovereign boundaries, when they boil over into military conflict or result in unmendable diplomatic fractures, tend to put both sides at the losing end.
No country is an island and, in an increasingly interconnected and globalised world, strong bilateral and multilateral relationships facilitate trade and the cross-border movement of goods, services, information, people and business.
As close neighbours with a shared past, both Singapore and Malaysia, along with regional neighbours, stand to gain if the region is stable, secure and prosperous. The Republic is Malaysia’s second-largest trading partner, and hundreds of thousands of Malaysians and Singaporeans cross the borders daily for work and play.
Speaking in Parliament last month, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman said: “As close neighbours, issues will naturally surface from time to time that we have to deal with. What is important is how we deal with them – discussing in good faith, complying with international law and honouring existing agreements.”
He added: “Despite these current difficulties, Singapore still hopes to work with Malaysia for better relations, and for closer long-term cooperation that will benefit the citizens of both sides.”