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  • Julia Cirne Lima Weston

The Forest City Project and its Likely Consequences for the Law of the Sea

Forest City - Johor Bahru, Malaysia

Starting from the basics, the case of Forest City in this post’s title refers to one of the projects in the Belt and Road Initiative, a Chinese megaproject, consisting of a series of investments in infrastructure, announced by president Xi Jinping in 2013.[1] While the project’s initial idea has been that of reconnecting the Eurasian continent through the ancient Silk Road, there have been deals signed with African and American countries as well, thus widening the scope of the project.[2] There are two ramifications of the project, what we call Belt, which refers to terrestrial infrastructure, and the Maritime Silk Road, which comprises investments in port infrastructure.[3] Forest City, whilst technically within the “Belt” category, as it is a development of a smart city, has practical effects in the maritime scenario due to its location.

The issue of Forest City refers specifically to the construction of a new city through a joint-venture between a Chinese construction company named Country Garden and the Sultanate of Johor, in Malaysia.[4] It refers to a development in the region of Iskandar Malaysia, a region in the South of Johor, across the strait from the City-State of Singapore. The ambitious project aims to build a new city following a smart city concept in islands reclaimed by Malaysia, striving to address issues of environment protection and sustainability.[5] One of Forest City’s strong suits, used to promote the place in sales, is its proximity of Singapore, only two kilometers from the major financial centre.[6] Things are, however, not so simple in practice.

The project started without major issue, with the Chinese firm starting its construction work in the islands south of Malaysia, which caused surprise to Singaporean authorities upon the unexpected sight of the project’s silhouette. [7] This led Singapore to consult with Malaysia in order to verify what the construction was about. [8] After the notification that the construction was proceeding according to established standards and was happening within Malaysian territory. The biggest concern from Singapore was the potential for environmental impact. [9] A team of researchers from a Malaysian university was sent to the region in order to verify whether there had been any environmental damage. [10] The report showed that while there had been no damage sustained by the Singaporean marine environment, some measures should be taken regarding the construction work in order to avoid future damages.[11]

When it comes to the Law of the Sea and the delicate international order, the proximity of the project to the Singaporean coast brings some questions to mind. Part XII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, when approaching environmental issues, has a focus on the prevention of transboundary environmental harm, and on international and regional cooperation in environment protection.[12] In case there are reports of alteration in the Singaporean marine environment, or even before that occurs, due to the collective obligation of protection of the marine environment, it is likely that Singapore can demand cooperation from Malaysia in order to avoid damages. In a scenario similar to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea’s order on the MOX Plant case between Ireland and the United Kingdom, a provisional measure could be demanded, should there be no enforcement of cooperation and marine damage prevention measures.[13]

The need to preserve the environment, and the proximity of the Forest City project to the coast of Singapore make its interference in the Singaporean marine environment a very likely possibility. In case any grave damage occurs, or even before that happens, the Law of the Sea framework makes it possible that judicial measures be used. After all, Singapore and Malaysia are no strangers to the judicial settlement of their maritime questions, having submitted their dispute over Pedra Branca/Pulau Buteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge to the International Court of Justice in 2003.[14]

The case of Forest City is only one of the projects in the major Belt and Road Initiative, which can be subject to scrutiny from the international community. The Asian continental region is rife with maritime disputes, and the development of infrastructure, especially in coastal regions, can lead to future conflicts. In this sense, it is important that the international community remains vigilant over possible conflict areas, in order to establish cooperation arrangements in order to avoid diplomatic escalations.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of JTMS or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. Julia Cirne Lima Weston holds an LL.M in International Law from University College London, writes as a Columnist at the Brazilian Institute for the Law of the Sea and has experience as a former intern at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. You may find the original Portuguese language version of this text at the Brazilian Institute for the Law


[1] Paolo Magri, “Introduction”, in: Alessia Amighini (ed), “China’s Belt and Road: a game changer?”, ISPI, 2017,, accessed August 4 2020.

[2] Yuan Li, “Belt and Road: A Logic Behind the Myth”, in: Alessia Amighini (ed), “China’s Belt and Road: a game changer?”, ISPI, 2017,, accessed August 4 2020.

[3] Andrew Chatzky; James McBride, “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative”, Council on Foreign Relations, January 28 2020,, accessed August 5 2020.

[4] Hong Liu; Guanie Lim, “The Political Economy of a Rising China in Southeast Asia: Malaysia’s response to the Belt and Road Initiative”, Journal of Contemporary China 28 (116) (2019).

[5] Forest City, “Forest City Overview”, Forest City,, accessed August 5 2020.

[6] ibid.

[7] Serina Rahman, “Johor’s Forest City Faces Critical Challenges”, Trends in Southeast Asia (3) 2017.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, signed Dec 10 1982, 1833 UNTS (entered into force Nov 16 1994), Part XII.

[13] MOX Plant (Ireland v. United Kingdom), Provisional Measures, Order of 3 December 2001, ITLOS Reports 2001, p. 95.

[14] Sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge (Malaysia/Singapore), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 2008, p. 12

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