Monday, May 16, 2005

Settling Territorial Disputes Without Going to Court

As I've frequently noted, Asia is a hotbed of territorial disputes, mostly involving Law of the Sea issues, and with very large economic stakes. In the past two days, two of the trickier disputes, which might have been litigated in an international tribunal, have "settled".

First, Australia and East Timor are expected to announce an agreement on a boundary settlement that will give Australia rights to develop undersea mineral deposits in exchange for a payment of royalties to East Timor. As I discussed previously, Australia pushed East Timor into this settlement by withdrawing from the ICJ's Law of the Sea compulsory jurisdiction just two months before East Timor gained independence.

Second, Malaysia and Singapore have settled their dispute over Singapore's land reclamation project. Although this dispute did go to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), the key to the settlement was improved bilateral relations that resulted in a settlement agreement.

None of this means that actual or threatened international court litigation doesn't matter in these sorts of territorial disputes. But the rather self-interested actions of these Asian countries in resolving their disputes should remind us that the key to resolution is as much a political and diplomatic question as it is a legal one.

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