Survival, success and sea: the importance of UNCLOS for Singapore
UNCLOS played a pivotal role in Singapore’s development from a maritime colony to a modern maritime state.
This article is part of the series “UNCLOS 40th Anniversary Series – Why UNCLOS Matters” conceptualized by the Blue Security program. The series, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, brings together established and emerging maritime security specialists from Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific to address the relevance and the relevance of UNCLOS. Blue Safety brings together experts from Australia and Southeast Asia to examine a range of maritime security issues in the region. The series was developed by Dr. Troy Lee-Brown and Dr. Bec Strating. It is published in collaboration with the Fulcrum team.
Singapore’s survival and success are inextricably linked to the oceans. From its colonial history to its independence in 1965, Singapore has always been a vital conduit for maritime trade due to its strategic location connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans via the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS). Today, Singapore is a major global maritime hub. It’s the busiest container transshipment port in the world, the number one bunker port, the fifth largest ship registry and was recently voted the top maritime city in 2022. That’s no small feat for a young nation with no hinterland or natural resources and whose own rulers wondered if it could survive as a viable independent state. It is in this context that the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) played a pivotal role in Singapore’s development from maritime colony to maritime state. The forty-year-old treaty continues to have enduring relevance to Singapore.
First, the UNCLOS negotiations – which ended in 1982 after nine years – were the first international forum in which Singapore, free from the foreign policy shackles of its colonial masters, was able to explicitly articulate its identity as a maritime nation. independent. The negotiations, involving more than 150 states, took place against a backdrop of decolonization, Cold War politics, unilateral maritime claims and calls for a redistribution of global resources. Coastal states dominated the negotiations and the majority of the G77 wanted better control of maritime space for economic and security reasons. Singapore was a newly independent small developing state, a member of the G77 and a founding member of ASEAN. Its overriding interest was guided by the acute understanding that its survival depended on a legal regime that preserved freedom of navigation and mitigated the expansive claims of coastal states.
For example, Singapore tabled a resolution in the General Assembly in 1972 requesting the UN Secretary General to prepare a comparative study on the impact of maritime claims on the Common Heritage of Humankind (CHH). Coastal states vehemently opposed it, but the resolution eventually passed and highlighted the ramifications of encroaching on coastal states’ jurisdiction. Singapore was a founding member (along with Afghanistan, Austria, Nepal and Zambia) of the group of fifty-five landlocked and geographically disadvantaged states, whose common interest was to oppose the extension of jurisdiction coastal states. Similarly, Singapore played an important role in the development of UNCLOS provisions on transit passage through straits used for international navigation. He took a different stance from the other SOMS-riparian states and fellow ASEAN members Indonesia and Malaysia, who wanted stricter regulatory authority from the strait states over SOMS. Singapore and Indonesia also cooperated to draft Article 51 which sought to preserve Singapore’s existing rights in what would become Indonesia’s archipelagic waters. The UNCLOS negotiations cemented Singapore’s reputation as a maritime state that punched above its weight.
Second, the complexity of the negotiations has provided invaluable lessons on coalition building, consensus and compromise in multilateral negotiations. Singapore had few diplomats experienced in international law, but they were still instrumental, including Professor S. Jayakumar and Ambassador Tommy Koh. Ambassador Koh served as chairman of the negotiations during its most difficult phase between 1981 and 1982 when the United States’ rejection of the draft convention threatened to derail the convention’s widespread acceptance as a legal order for the oceans. The negotiations were the crucible of the “pragmatic idealism” (coined up by Ambassador Koh) that characterizes Singaporean diplomacy and where its diplomats learned that small states play a valuable role in the face of big power politics.
… a rules-based order of the oceans is imperative for small states like Singapore. UNCLOS establishes a universal benchmark against which the interactions of states at sea can be assessed. It provides a wide range of peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms, including robust mandatory dispute resolution options, which allow states to submit disputes regarding the interpretation or application of UNCLOS to third-party international courts and tribunals .
Third, while Singapore is unable to claim the full range of maritime rights under UNCLOS, the Convention is critical to Singapore’s success as a flag and port state. For example, in SOMS, the Transit Passage Regime facilitates the movement of vessels while allowing Singapore to regulate passage to protect important public assets such as the marine environment and Article 43 provides the legal basis for cooperation with Malaysia and Indonesia in the management of SOMS. The UNCLOS provisions on flag state and port state responsibilities form the basis of Singapore’s legal regime governing these matters. Another advantage of UNCLOS is the CHH scheme, as the Republic is a sponsoring state for a company registered in Singapore to explore the CHH.
It’s not all smooth. Singapore’s dependence on the oceans means that the multitude of ocean threats such as pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change and rising sea levels have a direct impact on Singapore. Although some of these challenges were not anticipated by the drafters, UNCLOS was never intended to be a static document. The provisions contain an inherent flexibility that allows UNCLOS to be interpreted in an evolutionary way to meet ever-changing challenges. Indeed, negotiations are currently underway on an instrument for the protection of biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions initiated under the aegis of UNCLOS. It is chaired by another Singaporean, Ambassador Rena Lee, and testifies both to the centrality of UNCLOS in the order of the oceans and to its vitality as a living instrument.
Finally, a rules-based ocean ordinance is imperative for small states like Singapore. UNCLOS establishes a universal benchmark against which the interactions of states at sea can be assessed. It provides a wide range of peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms, including robust mandatory dispute resolution options, which allow states to submit disputes regarding the interpretation or application of UNCLOS to third-party international courts and tribunals . Small states can use UNCLOS and its institutions when faced with actions contrary to hard-won UNCLOS negotiations, providing an important (though not guaranteed) bulwark against the political and military power of larger states. In a geopolitically complex world, UNCLOS underpins peaceful relations at sea and acts as a constraint against pure power politics. For these reasons, it remains one of the most important international instruments adopted by Singapore since independence.
JThis article is part of the “Blue Security” project led by La Trobe Asia, University of Western Australia Defense and Security Institute, Griffith Asia Institute, UNSW Canberra and Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defense Dialogue (AP4D). The views expressed are solely those of its author(s) and do not represent the Maritime Exchange, the Australian Government or the government of the collaborating partner country.