Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Maritime Territorialization, UNCLOS and the Timor Sea Dispute

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Maritime Territorialization, UNCLOS and the Timor Sea Dispute

Article excerpt

In recent years, maritime sovereignty disputes have become highly visible microcosms of broader contests in the Asia-Pacific region. Materially, the seas matter because: they constitute significant trading thoroughfares; some seabeds are estimated to hold significant quantities of hydrocarbon resources; (1) they are often located in contested areas; and dwindling fishing stocks affect the livelihoods of coastal communities. (2) These material factors have provided potential flashpoints for conflict in the maritime domain including territorial disputes over islands and reefs in the South China and East China Seas. Yet, these conflicts are also motivated by ideational factors. Maritime sovereign claims reflect a form of symbolic politics that links national identity, status and prestige to the defence of maritime possessions.

This article examines the way that maritime spaces have become increasingly linked to, and conflated with, state sovereignty in public discourses, a process articulated as "maritime territorialization". (3) Negotiations that led to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) were conducted during three conferences: UNCLOS I from 1956 to 1958; UNCLOS II in 1960; and UNCLOS III from 1973 to 1982. (4) This article focuses predominantly on the codification of the international law of the sea through the third conference. This conference introduced a layered sovereignty regime that provided new incentives for states to extend the concept of sovereignty seawards, generating new disputes over overlapping jurisdictions and radically transforming and complicating boundary negotiations and entitlements. (5) UNCLOS is nearly universally applicable, with 168 of the world's 193 states party to the Convention. (6) The previous distinctions between the two sets of regimes governing the recognition of "land" and "sea" possessions and entitlements have become increasingly blurred by the sovereignty discourses of states claiming maritime territory since UNCLOS I in 1958. (7) Particularly in cases involving post-colonial states, sovereignty claims have evolved from being about material resources to ideational "symbolic" politics that link maritime spaces to national identity, and position "sea territory" as necessary for completing sovereignty and independence.

Maritime Southeast Asian states such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia are prolific players in the contests over territory and maritime jurisdictional rights in areas such as the South China Sea. Less well understood, however, is the dispute between the small Southeast Asian state of Timor-Leste and its much larger neighbour Australia over maritime boundaries and oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. Principally, the Timor Sea constitutes a distinctive kind of dispute from those most well understood in Southeast Asia. Whereas other Southeast Asian disputes often involve claims over territory (e.g. islands, rocks, reefs etc.) and their adjacent maritime zones, the Timor Sea dispute is over maritime boundaries and does not involve territory as it is traditionally conceived. While sovereignty is invoked in most maritime disputes, in this case, there is no dispute over islands. This article uses the Timor Sea dispute as a case study of maritime territorialization. At the heart of this dispute are the oil and gas deposits located in and around the so-called "Timor Gap". The Timor Gap refers to the gap created when Australia and Indonesia negotiated their maritime boundaries in 1972. The Timor Gap is the part of the boundary the two countries could not delineate because East Timor's then colonial power, Portugal, refused to participate. (8) This article examines the ideational sovereign narratives employed in Timor-Leste's public diplomacy to support the country's claims around maritime boundaries and the lucrative but contested Greater Sunrise, a gas field located between the coastlines of Australia, Timor-Leste and Indonesia that is estimated to contain 5. …

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