Author: Saman Rizwan,for The Diplomat

The legal case brought by Sulu Sultanate heirs against Malaysia highlights the unexpected links between present day tensions and European colonialism in Southeast Asia.

There is not a day that goes by without breaking news on escalating tensions in the South China Sea, as regional powers like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia increasingly contest China’s efforts to exert dominance of the strategic waterway through which a fifth of global trade moves. Yet beneath these rising tensions, the specter of European colonialism lurks undetected.

The unexpected link between present day tensions and past misdemeanors comes through a seemingly obscure international legal dispute which last February resulted in an award of nearly $15 billion against the government of Malaysia, on behalf of nine heirs to a colonial-era Sultanate in the Sulu region of the Philippines.

The award is not only the second largest of its kind in the history of international legal arbitrations, it may also be linked to current geopolitical tensions in the region in surprising ways. According to former NATO analyst Maurizio Geri, the lawyers for the Sulu heirs are closely tied to U.S. tech giants competing with China to dominate subsea cabling routes through which pass the world’s internet data.

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Saman Rizwan

Saman Rizwan is U.K.-based independent analyst and frequently writes on politics, gender, and environment. She has a Masters in International Relations from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore. As a journalist and commentator she writes frequently international politics, technology, human rights and gender-based violence, for publications like South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, The Nation, Forbes, and Newsweek. She has reported from Southeast Asia, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. She is a former researcher at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

Feature image: Taytay, Fort of Santa Isabel, Sulu Sea, Palawan, Philippines / via Wikimedia Commons