OUR little boat bobbed about in the churning waters for several hours before we caught sight of the tiny island, 45km east of Singapore. A mere speck on the vast sea, it looked forlorn with its solitary lighthouse.
As we approached the rock, covered in bird droppings, it became clear how the island dubbed Pedra Branca
A wave of emotions washed over me. Incredulousness, indignance and a sense of the sheer inanity of it all.
“This is what we are squabbling over?” I asked the captain of our crew, referring to the long-drawn dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over sovereignty of the island. “Afraid so,” he replied sheepishly.
Yes, I was aware of the wider significance of it all. There was much at stake for both countries in the dispute, which threatened at times to turn nasty. But set against this was the tragedy of lost opportunities to build a better future for people on both sides of the Causeway.
Thankfully, wiser counsel prevailed and both countries agreed in 2003 to take their old dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and settle the matter using jaw-jaw instead of more unspeakable options. Eventually, in 2008, after a keenly contested hearing, the Court ruled in Singapore’s favour, a verdict which leaders on both sides accepted with equanimity and good grace, allowing them to press on with cooperation on other fronts.
This happy outcome flashed back in my mind during a panel discussion I chaired at the FutureChina Global Forum
recently, titled China-Asean: Managing a Complex Relationship.
Complex is a euphemism. Fraught, tricky or precarious might sum it up better.
The relationship is many-faceted. China is Asean’s biggest trading partner, with trade reaching a record high of US$400.9bil (RM1.3 trillion) last year, up 10% from the previous year. These countries are linked not only by commerce, but also common cultures and history. But set against the deepening ties are rising political tensions, chiefly from competing claims to a few island chains around the region.