The Geopolitics of Maritime Boundary Pacts: How Big is the New Indonesia-Malaysia "Milestone?"
Plus perceptions of US-China competition; renewed Vietnam-India BrahMos speculation; and much more.
Welcome back to ASEAN Wonk BulletBrief! For this edition of our weekly product, we’re looking at:
The geopolitical significance of new Indonesia-Malaysia maritime boundary pacts inked at a bilateral leader meeting;
Mapping of key regional developments including renewed speculation on a Vietnam-India BrahMos missile deal and a new economic agreement between Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates;
Evolving trends on Southeast Asian perceptions on U.S.-China competition and the evolving regional media environment;
Tracking and data-driven analysis of industry developments such as the role of Chinese firms in the Philippines’ electric vehicle market ecosystem and Thailand’s retail central bank digital currency initiatives;
And more! Also, for those interested, Mark Leon Goldberg and I discussed some of the regional and global aspects of Thailand’s evolving and still fluid post-election dynamics on his Global Dispatches podcast, sparked in part by the earlier Myanmar post-election take here at ASEAN Wonk. Beyond that episode itself, if you’re into global affairs and podcasts, Global Dispatches is a great listen!
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Revived India-Vietnam BrahMos Missile Speculation; New Cambodia-UAE Economic Pact; China-Southeast Asia Naval Diplomacy & More
How Big is the New Indonesia-Malaysia "Milestone” on Maritime Boundary Pacts?
A landmark agreement by Indonesia and Malaysia making incremental inroads on delimiting maritime boundaries may not make as many headlines as upcoming military exercises or new minilaterals, but it is not without geopolitical significance given how ties have shaped up to date, where both countries are and what lies ahead for the region.
What’s Behind It
Indonesia and Malaysia reached a landmark agreement to delimit the boundaries in the southern part of the Straits of Malacca and the Sulawesi Sea. The agreement, which both sides had been working toward for months, came as an outcome of a working visit Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made to Malaysia June 7-8, where he held a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim reciprocating Anwar’s visit to Indonesia that occurred in January.
The inroads made are part of a longstanding, challenging effort by both sides at maritime and land border management. Though two main Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia maintain a healthy overall defense relationship and have shared cultural and historical links, they have lingering disagreements on several fronts, including illegal fishing, migrant worker protections and maritime and land boundaries. Making progress on boundary issues has been on the agenda early on since Anwar took office, factoring into preparations ahead of his visit to Indonesia and also in a brief meeting between the two leaders in May on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit that Indonesia hosted in Labuan Bajo, where they signaled that potential inroads could be made when Jokowi visited Malaysia.
Why It Matters
The agreement is a significant development for the bilateral relationship. As Jokowi himself noted at the joint press conference, both sides have been consulting on this basket of issues for nearly two decades, and even though the two countries still have some thornier border issues to work through, this nonetheless constitutes incremental progress. More generally, smoothing over these differences can also create even greater room for more cooperation in areas of broader geoeconomic and geopolitical significance, as we have already seen in the recent joint Indonesia-Malaysia palm oil mission to Europe or ASEAN discussions on Myanmar and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific — the latter two were in fact present in the joint statement but were lost in some of the headlines focusing mostly on the maritime boundary pacts.
Gains in Malaysia-Indonesia ties are even more significant given domestic political realities. Malaysia has seen a revolving door of prime ministers over the past few years, which have raised questions about the country’s ability to sustain inroads made and advance longer-term agenda items and reforms. Meanwhile, though Jokowi’s two terms in office have seen some progress in the management of boundary issues with neighbors — with recent examples including the security pacts with Singapore finalized in January last year to the Indonesia-Vietnam EEZ delimitation in December — developments such as the potential movement of Indonesia’s capital also have the potential to shift the management of cross-border dynamics in the overall bilateral relationship.
The agreement also put the spotlight on the emerging foreign policy approach of the Anwar government. Like several of Anwar’s other key foreign trips to date, the joint statement touted specific deliverables and honed in on economic issues, which in this case included border trade, investment and palm oil. Yet as we have also seen in other areas like Malaysia’s South China Sea policy following his return from China, some opposition voices quickly honed in on sensitive border matters to accuse the government of compromising the country’s sovereignty, leading Anwar to then defend his position in parliament and clarify that the country would not give up even an inch of territory.
Where It’s Headed
With the treaties now concluded, the focus will shift to when they will actually come into force and how some of the trickier border issues will be navigated. The joint statement noted that both leaders committed to expediting internal processes to ensure both the recently concluded Sulawesi Sea Treaty and SOM Treaty will enter into force and that they “are determined” to resolve other remaining boundary issues. But predictably, no specific dates were publicly disclosed beyond future signposts such as the next annual leader consultations which Indonesia will host and a period of about a year to manage remaining bilateral issues out to June 2024.
The changing domestic landscape in both countries will also affect the trajectory of ties. Indonesia is heading for elections in February 2024, and a new president and accompanying political dynamics could affect how Jakarta manages ties with its neighbors within it overall foreign policy outlook. Malaysia is headed for a series of state elections that will consume the government even as it tries to make inroads on wider foreign policy priorities and the focus on Anwar’s foreign policy outlook intensifies out to some key events, which include the 50th anniversary of China-Malaysia ties in 2024 and Malaysia’s assumption of the annually-rotating ASEAN chairmanship which Indonesia now holds in 2025.
“Singaporeans are almost as likely to believe that they will benefit economically from both countries competing as they are likely to worry about the national security consequences…Singaporeans are comparatively more concerned about the consequence of great power competition on their domestic politics,” notes a new survey report by the Eurasia Group Foundation that looks at perceptions of U.S.-China competition in Asia and includes both the Philippines and Singapore. Though the focus of the headlines will likely be on the aggregate favorability assessments of the United States and China as we have seen with other past public opinion assessments, there are also more specific questions around systems of governance and military cooperation for those looking for more granular comparative datapoints (link).
“The military is the main culprit for these problems, but there are structural flaws in the international humanitarian response that undermine relief efforts,” including lengthy assessments, the lack of local-led implementation and an overreliance on the junta for access, argues an op-ed published by Frontier Myanmar on international relief efforts following deadly Cyclone Mocha in Rakhine State. The piece recommends ways to overcome these shortcomings, including strengthening technical and funding support to local actors and finding creative ways to work with armed resistance groups as humanitarian partners (link).
“COVID-19 led to a flood of misinformation, and the presidential election scheduled for 2024 has likewise prompted widespread concern about the use of automated accounts and paid commentators, locally known as “buzzers,” to promote various political interests,” notes the Indonesia portion of the 2023 Digital News Report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. In addition to Indonesia, four other Southeast Asian markets are featured – Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – not without controversy in the region on aspects such as media source trust rating and resulting in a clarification statement (link).