M'sia's intention behind Middle Rocks, explained

Malaysia is sending a strong message to Singaporeans and Malaysians.

Kayla Wong | June 03, 2018, 02:24 PM

Malaysia withdrew its bid to challenge the 2008 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on Pedra Branca on Wednesday, May 30.

Singapore was "happy to agree".

However, Malaysia is "thinking" about creating its own island instead.

Middle Rocks might be enlarged to form an island

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that Malaysia might enlarge Middle Rocks -- roughly two clusters of rocks 1km south of Pedra Branca -- to form a "small island", although they "have not made a full decision yet".

He also said that Malaysia had "already built features" there.

One of the "features" he is referring to is a maritime base called Abu Bakar, which is situated at the opening of one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

According to Today, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs do not have any "comments on Malaysia's activities on Middle Rocks as long as they are in accordance with international law".

Why expand Middle Rocks to form a "small island"?

So, what exactly are behind Malaysia's intentions in making the announcement regarding Middle Rocks?

Here are some reasons given by experts who were cited in a Today report.

Assertion of sovereignty

Several experts, including Associate Professor Eugene Tan of Singapore Management University, say that Malaysia's plan is about asserting state sovereignty.

He said:

"I see it more as seeking to re-assert Malaysian sovereignty despite dropping for good their claim to Pedra Branca."

In addition, Associate Professor Kevin Blackburn of the National Institute of Education referred to the book Malaysia-Singapore: Fifty Years of Contentions 1965-2015 written by the leader of the Malaysian legal team for the 2007 ICJ case, Kadir Mohamad.

Kadir wrote that the Middle Rocks pier was "to symbolise the equality of status between Middle Rocks and Pedra Branca and to display a continuous presence on the rock in future".

However, the ICJ has ruled that Middle Rocks is a "maritime feature", while Pedra Branca is a "granite island".

And even if Middle Rocks was enlarged to form a "small island", it will be an artificial island, not a real island. Artificial islands do not have Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of their own.

Professor James Chin of University of Tasmania also said that building a permanent settlement on maritime features such as Middle Rocks is "actually very common among countries which wants to assert their sovereignty".


Signalling to domestic audience

Mahathir's announcement regarding Middle Rocks might also be targeted more towards Malaysians, especially since Malaysia just gave up its bid to contest Pedra Branca.

Mustafa Izzaluddin, a ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute fellow said:

"The announcement was primarily for domestic consumption.

It shows that Malaysia has sovereignty over Middle Rocks, and that the expansion can help enhance Malaysia's maritime security.”

Top image via Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar/FB