MB Feb | Is the future on the water? | Macau of Landfills

Macau has always lived facing the sea. Will the recent delineation of territorial waters change (the economy of) Macau?

It has only been two years since Beijing announced Macau’s jurisdiction over 85 square kilometres of surrounding sea. 

It is therefore very early to comprehend what this really means although received in Macau with boundless enthusiasm (“The MSAR Government is deeply grateful to the Central Government for this important support initiative!” said Chui Sai On, adding: “Thanks to the strong commitment and efficiency of the joint working group composed of the various ministries and commissions of the Central Government and the services of Guangdong Province, we received this good news that makes us enthusiastic.”). 

There are two perspectives that can be gleaned: on the one hand, what China did was to regularise a situation that was at least 15 years late; on the other, it is possible to anticipate that with more space Macau can grow and, for example, diversify its economy. Moderately . . . 

The MSAR was born, in fact, without a definition of its territorial waters, unlike Hong Kong, due to the fact that Portugal and China had never agreed on the definition of space – which has led to some caricature situations (see text on these pages). 

Portugal was always more concerned with the land than with the sea and as of 20 December 1999 the Chinese authorities also understood that it was not a priority topic. On the map of the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China published by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China on 20 December 1999 the boundaries of territorial waters are only described as “The scope of water traditionally under the administration of the MSAR is unchanged.”  

Several consequences have thus arisen over the years: on the one hand, landfills are the only way to solve the shortage of land and on the other, the idea that Hengqin could be permanently ceded to Macau had to be abandoned because this would require a revision of the Basic Law. 

The publication of the map in December 2015 clarified these and other issues: the fact that Macau has no jurisdiction over territorial waters has often been used by lawyers in cases of crimes committed in maritime areas, such as illegal immigration or theft of vessels, or, for example, when certain real estate investments have been situated on land conquered at sea, namely in the area of the Inner Harbour. 

If the definition of the 85 square kilometres serves to resolve such disputes it has already been useful. But it will not satisfy everyone. 

In fact, from the beginning the measure was associated with the possibility of Macau diversifying its economy. Which is why, from the very beginning, it has been said that there will be no gambling on landfills under construction or on those yet to be built. 

The MSAR was created without a definition of its territorial waters, unlike Hong Kong 

There has been a lot of talk about prioritising maritime activities, but there is no study on the subject, while the experience at Fisherman’s Wharf is disappointing. 

It will be necessary to know the plan that is promised, covering a period of 20 years, to realise what concepts exist and how they will get off the ground. 

The other big question is how the definition of the 85 square kilometres will actually resolve the scarcity of space and the high dependence upon Beijing’s decisions. 

The fact that the so-called ‘fourth space’ does not fit in the available space and the time that China is taking to unlock landfills for the airport works (two issues dealt with separately in this special report) raises doubts. 

Firing on Macau Border 

In the 1950s, several incidents occurred between Portuguese and Chinese forces in local waters.  

“In one of them, a Portuguese sailor was arrested by the Chinese authorities for entering the territorial waters of the PRC. In another case, in May 1952, Chinese soldiers stationed near the Border Gate shot at a fishing boat that allegedly violated Chinese territorial waters; a Chinese gunman who came to the scene thought he was being attacked by a nearby Macau Maritime and Fiscal Police boat, and in the confusion there was an intense exchange of gunfire between the two sides. The news ran around the world.  The New York Times headlined the story on May 23, 1952: ‘Firing on Macau Border Reported in Hong Kong’, while on May 24, 1952 The Daily Telegraph ran the headline: ‘Macau Incident Denied’.” (from Macau Antigo weblog). 

(4th) Space without space | Macau of Landfills