Late last week, Malaysian and Indonesian sources reported that the two countries would appoint special envoys to begin holding “exploratory” negotiations over still-outstanding territorial disputes. The decision to appoint the special envoys came at the conclusion of a meeting between Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Putrajaya, Malaysia last week during a three-day bilateral summit. Although the appointment of special envoys sends a positive signal about the intents of the two governments to address the dispute, there was little public discussion of how the leaders plan on arriving at any agreement. Indonesia and Malaysia maintain competing claims over the Ambalat sea block and their maritime border in the Celebes sea off the eastern coast of Borneo.
“We agreed to appoint special envoys, so issues on maritime borders can be settled as they have remained unresolved for too long,” Widodo told reporters after the conclusion of his meeting with Najib. The mutual agreement on a special envoy mechanism suggests optimism in both countries that the dispute can be resolved via bilateral means. In the past, Indonesia and Malaysia have resorted to international arbitration to help adjudicate territorial disputes. For example, in 2002, the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Malaysia in a territorial dispute concerning the islands of Sipadan and Ligitan. Those two islands are also in the Celebes Sea. The ICJ justified that ruling based on “effective” ownership and administration of the islands by the United Kingdom, Malaysia’s former colonizer. In the absence of a stronger Indonesian claim, Malaysia came out on top.
The appointment of special envoys at this time is a bit curious given Najib’s acknowledgment that “technical teams” from both countries have met 26 times without “significant progress” on resolving the outstanding maritime disputes. It’s not immediately apparent how the creation of a special envoy will help address the clear divide over the substantial elements of the dispute between the two sides. Still, Najib told the press that the envoys would pursue a “a formula acceptable to the government and people of both Indonesia and Malaysia.”
The agreement to appoint special envoys additional comes shortly after Widodo’s government implemented a policy of sinking foreign vessels fishing illegally in its waters. Earlier in January, a Malaysian-flagged vessel was sunk by Indonesian authorities.
Amid concerns that Jokowi’s government is applying the president’s election campaign populism to questions of Indonesia’s regional foreign policy, the move to appoint special envoys in tandem with Malaysia sends a somewhat reassuring message. Although the prescription of envoys alone is unlikely to resolve this seemingly intractable dispute, it is a step in the right direction for the two Southeast Asian neighbors.