Jakarta- The first formal meeting betweenMalaysiaandIndonesiato discuss a dispute over an oil-rich area in theSulawesiSeaended with an agreement to resolve it by “peaceful means”. However, in a sign that the issue may yetundermine one of Asean’s most critical relationships for some time to come, the Malaysian Foreign Minister said there was no time-frame for a settlement.
“We hope this would be a begining of talking to each other on this issue, the Sulawesi Sea, and we will see from then on," Mr Syed Hamid Albar told reporters in Jakarta on March 10.
He saidduring a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart Hassan Wirayuda late on March 9, both agreed on peaceful dialogue to end the dispute centring on Kuala Lumpur's granting of an oil concession in the contested area.
But when asked whether there was any schedule for the negotiations, Mr Syed Hamid said: “I do not think we should give any time-frame."
A joint statement issued by the two ministers at the end of their meeting said the two governments would "take necessary steps" to ease the recent tensions.
"The President ofIndonesiaand the Prime Minister ofMalaysiahave decided to use peaceful means in addressing the problem relating to the maritime border of the two countries, particularly in theSulawesiSea," it said.
The two sides would also organise a “technical team” with representatives from both sides to discuss the problem on a regular basis fromMarch 22.
Warships from both countries have come into close contact in the area east ofBorneoseveral times since Feb 16 when energy giant Shell was given a concession byMalaysia's state oil company Petronas.
Jakartasays the blocks awarded by Petronas are outsideKuala Lumpur's sovereignty.
According to The Straits Times, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono faces pressure on two fronts: Having to contend with popular sentiment whipped up into a nationalist frenzy, as well as hardline generals.
His public stancehas thus farreflected this balancing act. While telling the Indonesian military commander that the dispute should be settled peacefully, the President also spoke of the the “need to protect our sovereignty”.
In a commentary published in The Jakarta Post,Mr Michael Vatikiotis, the former editor of the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, said “it is hard to believe that one of Asean’s most critical relationships is foundering on a territorial dispute”.
“The war of words and dispatching of warships to a dispute area of theSulawesiSeathreatens the closest relationship the two countries have enjoyed since either gained independence, and could undermine a crucial investment lifeline that has helpedIndonesiaemerge from years of economic sterility with the help of capital from neighbouring countries likeMalaysia.”
* Indonesia and Malaysia spar in the Sulawesi Sea (The Jakarta Post, March 10)
* High stakes in Sulawesi Sea (The Straits Times, March 8)
* Malaysia and Indonesian technical team to meet on March 22-23 (Bernama, March 10)