USS John McCain collision sheds light on territorial dispute

Story highlights

  • The collision happened in disputed waters
  • Ten US sailors are missing

(CNN)A collision involving a US navy ship Monday took place in waters that have been bitterly disputed between Malaysia and Singapore for decades.

The incident happened while the USS John McCain, a guided missile destroyer, was on its way to a port call in Singapore. Ten sailors are currently missing and five were injured.
Singaporean and Malaysian authorities have both said the incident happened in their territorial waters. Both sides said publicly that each were leading the search and rescue efforts and reiterated those claims when contacted by CNN for clarification.
    "Singapore should have ... joined our search and rescue," Zulkifili Abu Bakar, the director-general of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, told CNN. "This incident happened in Malaysian territorial waters."
    Singapore deployed nearby assets to the Malacca Strait -- one of the world's most congested waterways -- to help, including divers to help in the search and tugboats. The small city-state also flew four people from the ship to a hospital on land (their injuries are not considered life-threatening.) The US Navy said Malaysian ships joined the search effort in the afternoon local time.
    Claire Lim, a spokeswoman for the Singapore Maritime and Port Authority, said the crash happened in Singapore's waters but declined to comment further when asked about the competing Malaysian claim, instead directing CNN to a media relations email address.
    Though the collision happened in disputed waters, Bakar said at a news conference earlier Monday that the search and rescue effort remains the top priority.
    "I don't think we should ... argue about whose waters, because I think the most important thing is to focus on the search and rescue effort," he said. "The assets on the ground also, they are talking to each other. One thing is very clear is that we do not want to have another collision between the assets on the ground."
    The USS John McCain was able to sail on its own Singapore's Changi Naval Base, where it is currently docked.

    Pedra Branca

    The dispute centers around a legal decision regarding a small piece of land in the middle of the ocean called Pedra Branca.
    Malaysia and Singapore both claimed it as their own territory and took the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which decided in 2008 that the island belonged to Singapore. The issue of who has sovereignty over the nearby territorial waters, however, was kicked back to Malaysia and Singapore.
    Earlier this summer, Malaysia asked the ICJ to revisit the issue of the surrounding waters, a request which Singapore called "puzzling." (Malaysia also applied for a revised judgment in the case in February, claiming it had new evidence.)
    "The waters were supposed to be decided between Malaysia and Singapore as part of a joint committee," said Kevin Blackburn, a professor focusing on Malaysian and Singaporean history at Singapore's National Institute of Education. "The committee never really came to any firm conclusions."
    Singapore has played a delicate balancing act in recent years, maintaining fruitful relationships with both China and the United States. The nearby South China Sea dispute has proven a sticking point in recent years, and the election of US President Donald Trump has also shaken things up.
    But China's willingness to throw its weight around in the region has meant that both Singapore and Malaysia place a premium on their relationships with the US military.
    Blackburn says those will likely mean that the territorial disputes will be temporarily pushed to the backburner.
    "These two countries have had very close relations militarily with the US, and they would never damage those," Blackburn said. "There shouldn't be any problems given the strength of those relationships."