Long Swept Under the Rug, a Southeast Asian Territorial Dispute Gains New Importance

July 27, 2018

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.

Who is right in the territorial dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia over Sabah is a question best not asked. In answer, each side will reaffirm their absolute sovereign claim to Sabah, on the northern part of the island of Borneo, and mutual recriminations will result.

During the 2016 Philippine presidential campaign, one prominent candidate, Jejomar Binay (who ended up losing badly) promised to pursue the Philippine claim to Sabah. As expected, Kuala Lumpur was far from pleased.

Not asking this question with two mutually opposed answers has been good for Philippine–Malaysia relations. In the past year, the Philippine and Malaysian coast guards have participated in coordinated patrols in the Sulu and Celebes seas, spurred on by the actions of Sulu-based pirates and the siege of Marawi. From 2001 onwards, Malaysia played the role of third-party facilitator of the peace talks between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that traversed four Philippine presidents.

Wisely, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad chose not to discuss the Sabah question during their first meeting as leaders of their respective countries last week.

Unfortunately, the current push for revising the 1987 Constitution and introducing a federal system of government in the Philippines is making it much more difficult not to ask the Sabah question. Last weekend, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly criticized repeated comments by “Nene” Pimentel Jr. that Sabah should be recognized as a federal state of the Philippines. Pimentel is a senior member of the consultative committee in the Philippines appointed by Duterte that wrote the draft federal constitution now tabled in Congress, and founder of the ruling PDP-Laban party. Duterte is the party chairman.

Section 1 of Article 1 of the draft federal constitution states that:

The Philippines has sovereignty over its territory, consisting of the islands and waters encompassed by its archipelagic baselines, its territorial sea, the seabed, the subsoil, and its airspace. It has sovereignty over islands and features outside its archipelagic baselines pursuant to the laws of the Federal Republic, the law of nations, and the judgments of competent international courts or tribunals. It likewise has sovereignty over other territories belonging to the Philippines by historic right or legal title.

Article 1 of the 1987 Constitution does not include this last sentence that would appear to cover the Philippine claim to Sabah.

Duterte and PDP-Laban’s desire to answer the question of federalism in the Philippines (an issue of particular interest to politicians from Mindanao, such as Duterte and Pimentel) in favor of federalism risks increasing tensions with Malaysia over Sabah.

Some questions are best left unasked.


Malcolm Cook is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. From 2003 to 2010, he was the Institute’s inaugural East Asia Program Director. He completed a PhD in International Relations from the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He also holds a Masters degree in International Relations from the International University of Japan and an honors degree from McGill University in Canada, his country of birth. In 2011, Malcolm became the inaugural Dean of the School of International Studies at Flinders University of South Australia and in 2014, became a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Image: Flickr/Francoise Gaujour