Indonesia and Vietnam have concluded long-running talks to demarcate the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), marking an important step toward the resolution of disputes between Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea.
Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced yesterday that EEZ negotiations had been completed and an agreement had been signed in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“After 12 years of intensive negotiations, Indonesia and Vietnam have finally concluded negotiations on the EEZ boundaries of the two countries based on the 1982 UNCLOS,” Jokowi said, according to BenarNews.
The announcement came after Jokowi met with Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the Bogor Presidential Palace in West Java, during the latter’s three-day state visit to Indonesia. The two leaders also agreed to boost bilateral trade to $15 billion by 2028, up from around $12 billion currently, and to bolster cooperation in the areas of defense, security, tourism, and education.
For years, Vietnam and Indonesia have struggled to resolve overlapping EEZ claims in the waters surrounding the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. (A nation has exclusive rights to natural resources lying within its EEZ.) While the two nations signed an agreement on a continental shelf boundary in 2003, the EEZ boundary remained contested, in large part because of differing legal perspectives as to how it should be established.
This has most often manifested in clashes over the issue of illegal and unregulated fishing. Indonesia has captured and destroyed dozens of Vietnamese boats accused of encroaching into Indonesian waters to fish. On one occasion in 2017, a Vietnamese coast guard vessel reportedly prevented an Indonesian attempt to detain Vietnamese boats that were caught fishing in disputed waters.
While the issue has been managed relatively well, with both sides undertaking efforts not to allow the dispute to color bilateral relations, the unresolved boundary has hamstrung the establishment of a united front toward what is arguably a more pressing question for Vietnam and Indonesia: China’s expansive claims over the South China Sea. Prior to yesterday’s agreement, the details of which have not been released, both sides’ EEZs lay at least partially within China’s “nine-dash line” claim, which includes the majority of the South China Sea.
The agreement is thus a welcome step toward the resolution of an outstanding set of disputes that have prevented Southeast Asian claimants – particularly Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines – from establishing a united front against China’s much more expansive claims.
As Xuan Dung Phan of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University wrote last year: “As the Vietnam-Indonesia overlapping EEZ claims lie within China’s nine-dash line, a delimitation agreement will further showcase both countries’ rejection of Beijing’s unlawful claims.”
One Vietnamese expert cited by BenarNews suggested that the agreement could now encourage Vietnam to broker similar agreements with the Philippines and Malaysia.