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Bilateral meetings among ASEAN leaders

Updated On: Aug 17, 2007

This week saw a flurry of bilateral meetings among some of the ASEAN prime ministers.

The 11th Annual Leaders' Consultation between Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah was held on 13 August. This consultation is held annually and provides a platform for both leaders to discuss bilateral issues and other matters of common interests. Among some of the more substantive issues, both leaders agreed to do away with the use of passports for frequent travellers between the two countries. Instead citizens of both countries can use their respective state-issued identity cards as “frequent traveller cards.”

Both sides also made some progress on the maritime boundary agreement on an area west of the Borneo Island. According to the joint statement, “both sides had put forward new proposals, and agreed on the need to resolve the matter urgently. They instructed their negotiating teams to work out the details.” The outstanding issues are the border demarcation in Limbang and maritime matters such as the dispute over an oil field and the exclusive economic zone off the Borneo coast.

High level talks between the two have been ongoing since 2003 when both sides awarded production-sharing contracts to four overlapping deepwater exploration blocks in the South China Sea, close to where a 440-million-barrel discovery had been made the year before. Following the dispute, both countries agreed to stop drilling activities in the area.

The Dow Jones Newswires (15 August) noted, “Any decision by Malaysia and Brunei to redraw their maritime boundaries will set a precedent in Southeast Asia, which has typically resolved such disputes through joint exploration.”

In contrast to the positive Malaysia-Brunei relationship, the closer Malaysia-Singapore relationship has come under criticism from Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, Mahathir. Mahathir slammed Abdullah for proposing a joint ministerial meeting with Singapore over the Iskandar Development Region (IDR) project and for “giving in” over outstanding bilateral issues. He sneered, “We should change our slogan to ‘Malaysia Tak Boleh’ [Malaysia Cannot]… Because now, we cannot even do anything without asking others.”

Mahathir’s criticism of the closer Singapore-Malaysia relations is not novel. Last week (on 10 August), in response to criticism from Malaysia over the joint ministerial committee, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “We will let Malaysia take the lead...In other areas, I think we should proceed like that too, because otherwise, if we push too hard, there might be some misinterpretation.”

Lee also suggested that the unresolved issues between the two countries (such as the use of airspace, water supply and land used by the Malaysian railway) would be left for the moment. He said, “The old issues, we just let it be…if they have to be resolved, go according to the law and the treaties because that's non-contentious and both sides can accept it, and it doesn’t lead to any loss of face or commitment.” One such issue that would be dealt by the international law is the long-standing territorial dispute over Pedra Branca island, located at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait. The issue has been brought to the International Court of Justice and would be heard in November this year.

On the other hand, Singapore-Vietnam ties look set to strengthened. Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, his wife and a high-ranking delegation of the Vietnamese Government are on an ASEAN tour until Thursday (16 August), which takes in three countries- Singapore, Myanmar and Brunei.

Singapore is Vietnam’s top investor.  Both sides have signed the Singapore-Vietnam Connectivity Agreement Framework in December 2005. In the first seven months of this year, Singapore companies have poured in another US$1.32 billion into Vietnam.

Dung also suggested having a Ministerial level Joint Steering Committee to oversee and provide high-level political support for joint projects. The proposal was agreed by Lee who said, “I fully support this idea and am encouraged by his commitment to accelerate the approval of our investments in Vietnam.” Economic ties between the two look set to blossom.  (16 August 2007)

Sources:

Mahathir Blames Rising Crime On ‘Rot’ Under Govt (The Straits Times, 16 August 2007)

MalaysiaBruneiMaritime Deal May Lead To Oil, Gas Windfall (Dow Jones Newswires, 15 August 2007)

MalaysiaBruneiAgree To Passport-Less Travel (Agence France Presse, 15 August 2007

Bid To Resolve BruneiBoundary Issue (New Straits Times, 14 August 2007)

No Time Frame To Resolve Boundary Issue(New Straits Times, 15 August 2007)

MalaysiaBruneiTo Explore Ways To Promote Cooperation (Bernama, 14 August 2007)

SingaporeIs Vietnam's 2nd Biggest Investor (Business Times Singapore14 August 2007)

VN, SingaporePromote Partnership (The Saigon Times Daily, 14 August 2007)

$15b But HanoiWants More (Today, 14 August 2007)

PM: Bilateral Issues Best Settled By International Law (Straits Times, 11 August 2007)