KUALA LUMPUR - MALAYSIA and Singapore face a new bump in their bilateral ties unless they swiftly tackle questions from a World Court's decision over disputed rocky outcrops on a strategic shipping lane, analysts said.
The ruling could complicate the 28-year-old row, especially over jurisdiction of waters surrounding the adjacent islets where the Singapore Strait meets the South China Sea, a strategic route that sees 80,000 ships pass each year, they said.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on Friday that Singapore owns Pedra Branca islet where it has an operational lighthouse, while Malaysia was given Middle Rocks.
It left the two sides to decide on South Ledge, depending on the territorial water it lies in, and both have pledged to form a joint panel to resolve the issues. Malaysia, though, has promptly laid claim on this group of rocks visible only at low tide.
'I believe the court's decision may lead to more overlapping claims because Malaysia was awarded sovereignty over Middle Rocks while Singapore has sovereignty over Pedra Branca,' said Abdul Ghani Othman, Chief Minister of southern Johor state, which will have jurisdiction over Middle Rocks.
'The ICJ decision is rather interesting because both islands are close to each other but are separated by different sovereignties,' he told reporters.
'It is necessary for the Joint Committee to meet expeditiously to establish the protocols for cooperation because of the narrow channel between Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks,' said Barry Desker, Dean of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
'The next step will be to enter into consultation with Malaysia immediately, to work out a timetable and framework for the implementation of the ICJ judgment,' he said.
The islets are separated by 600m of water.
'As one of the leading ports in the world, safety of navigation in the Straits of Singapore is a critical issue. The immediate focus would be to ensure the continuation of lighthouse operations on Pedra Branca and the security of sea lanes through which more than 80,000 vessels pass annually,' Mr Desker added.
One contention is whether or not the two sides would proceed to enlarge their respective outcrops and develop naval outposts.
Malaysia has told Singapore not to initiate its reclamation plans. In its case at the ICJ, Singapore said Malaysia had not responded to the installation of military communications equipment in 1977 and its reclamation plans on Pedra Branca.
'This is a potential flashpoint,' said Abdul Ghafur Hamid, law expert at Malaysia's International Islamic University.
'The crucial thing is the two countries should delimit their territorial waters. Otherwise, there will be so many problems and confusion,' he said, adding both nations must set up a protocol on fishing, navigation and naval patrols in the area.
Malaysia's Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar has proposed joint patrols of the area to prevent any trouble. -- REUTERS