Do Maritime Policies Matter to Those Living at Sea?

In the study of Maritime Southeast Asia, scholars would unpack the historical and contemporary importance of water bodies from historical, sociological, cultural, political, and economic perspectives. Often these discourses and debates lead back to the issue of fluidity and porousness of seas and oceans throughout this uniquely archipelagic maritime region that is Indonesia, The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore (ASEAN observer Timor-Leste should also be mentioned here). In policy studies, this is often equated with the current narratives of security, defense, territorial disputes and a list of potential crises, threats and criminal activities (human smuggling, trafficking, violent extremism, piracy, illegal fishing, and environmental devastations).

Within the Indo-Pacific, maritime borders, diplomacy, and sea mobility is commonly associated with the Asian superpowers, specifically China, India, Australia, Japan, and at times ASEAN, and their individual and collective influences on the issue. There have been some challenges identified by policy experts in the development of maritime policies, namely the issue of differing mechanics of security, which are influenced by a nation's military practices, human and financial resources, and also one’s geographical terrain; this can result in different security, mobility and migratory outcomes overall.

The maritime nations of ASEAN, for example, (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, The Philippines, Brunei, and land-locked members with considerable coastal areas like Vietnam and Myanmar) have each approached shared maritime concerns differently despite sharing intimate and interwoven maritime history, heritage, and borders with each other. As their maritime problems continue to expand and intensify with time, experts have recommended stronger and more direct communication between nation-states through the formation of regional councils, customizable security and economic frameworks, and the expansion of partnerships with other experienced maritime countries within the Indo Pacific like India and China, and with time the EU, The US and NATO.

But for those who research the area from the ground up, these policies have been equated with rigid and sometimes archaic ways of understanding water bodies, which fail to capture very important nuances of identity, belonging, and the pre-territorial and pre-boundary movements of littoral (to mean along the shore of part of seas or lakes) communities. Communities living in the coast also feel that such land-centric policies for development and strategic ties continue to perpetuate their littoral way of life as being dangerous and threatening. The bottom line is that while governments continue to work on securing and strengthening their maritime issues, they also enable an old (and problematic) narrative of littoral communities and spaces only existing as problems to be solved.

Borneo for example (also my area of research), is the largest island in Asia and the third largest in the world, and its political division between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei means that international, regional, and local maritime laws have been in place to ensure economic trading of goods and produce, and maritime boundaries are secured and protected. However, while international sea laws are in place to help foster more efficient diplomatic ties between neighbouring nation-states of these maritime spaces, local laws enacted can sometimes be in contradiction to them. An example of this is The Malaysian Territorial Sea Act 2012 (TSA), which sets out 12 nautical miles as the breadth of the territorial sea throughout Malaysia. The history leading to the enactment of the TSA is long and complicated but it is generally a response to international laws such as the (Alteration of Boundaries) Order in Council, 1954 (vis-à-vis the Colonial Boundaries Act, 1895), which determines the boundaries of a British colony and the Law of the Sea Convention, 1982, a multilateral treaty governing the world's oceans.

However, in the case of Sabah and Sarawak, the territory for the exploitation or exploration of the territorial sea is limited to only 3 nautical miles, which has been greatly contested by local activists and politicians and accused of being unconstitutional. The arguments made by those protesting the change have accused the Malaysian government of wanting to have complete control over the state’s rights to fisheries, marine, and mineral resources. The Malaysian government, however, has responded by explaining that while international law limits the Malaysian territorial waters to 12 nautical miles (22km) from the coast, the TSA had always limited the states’ waters to 3 nautical miles (5.5km) from the coast. Before 1963, Sabah and Sarawak, as independent nations, had sovereignty over waters up to the full 12 nautical miles from their shores, but this had to change as they became states under the federation of Malaysia.

Regardless of ongoing debates, for those living on the coast, contradictory or overlapping international and domestic policy quandaries such as the above mentioned only translate to further inconveniences in their daily lives at sea, which eventually impact their access to work, social connectivity, and native practices. From this other social problems often ensues: specific to Malaysia, the rigid governing of water boundaries has also led to modern day migratory issues of epic proportions, mirroring the displacement of migrants and refugees coming from countries like Ukraine, Syria, Sub-Saharan Africa and Myanmar.

Littoral communities from east Sabah in Malaysia, southern Philippines and eastern Kalimantan of Indonesia see their maritime movement between these nation states as fluid and natural. Non-legally recognised movements are considered illicit and in many cases, criminal, and when arrested they are eventually deported. For the children of these people, they are deemed stateless and undocumented. Further complicating this is the villainizing of local littoral populations who share similar cultural and ethnic identities to these nearby migrants, all of whom are often deemed as dangerous by authorities. While many littoral communities have expressed wanting to respect national laws and international boundaries, it becomes clear to many maritime communities that these policies have given very little consideration to their immediate needs and difficulties in place of the protection of sovereign borders.

It cannot be denied that securing maritime borders are in fact important to national security and will continue to be the focus of countries in the Indo-Pacific, especially that of developing nations. However, it is important to recognise that for littoral communities, it is easy to understand how International maritime treaties and cooperation seem to have overlooked their everyday practices and relationships with their sacred water bodies. Their retaliation towards this comes in the form of a rejection of these maritime conventions; these communities are only concerned with their daily survival and will utilise their maritime space for the movements of goods, peoples and ideas indefinitely. Solving this quandary will require littoral and maritime communities to be invited to contribute to the building of more effective policies. With a potential shift on civil engagement, newer maritime laws and policies, both domestic and international, can not only help ensure security and economic stability, but also more important concerns in the 21st century such as Covid-19 healthcare and recovery, climate change and gender equality.