PUTRAJAYA: Malaysia must ensure it is not “dragged and trapped” in a geopolitical tussle between superpowers in its efforts to resolve disputes over the South China Sea, its Minister for Foreign Affairs Hishammuddin Hussein said on Wednesday (Aug 5).
Mr Hishammuddin was speaking in parliament, answering questions from Members of Parliament (MPs) on the status of China’s demands for territory in the South China Sea and how this impacts Malaysia’s security and sovereignty.
He outlined that his ministry is keen on resolving the dispute constructively through “appropriate diplomatic negotiations”, and highlighted two main issues facing Malaysia.
“Firstly I do not want Malaysia to be dragged and trapped in a geopolitical tussle between superpowers,” said Mr Hishammuddin.
“We must prevent any unwanted incident from happening within our territorial waters. We must also prevent any military clashes in the waters between any relevant parties,” he added.
Secondly, Mr Hishammuddin said that the South China Sea dispute cannot be used as an issue that will cause disunity between ASEAN countries.
“If we follow the narrative and succumb to the pressure of superpowers, the potential for ASEAN countries to bend and take sides with certain countries will be high. When facing big superpowers, we must be united, as one bloc, so that our strength will be synergised effectively,” he said.
Mr Hishammuddin noted that Malaysia’s territorial dispute in the South China Sea is not just with China but there are also “overlapping claims” with fellow ASEAN countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.
“If ASEAN breaks apart, and Malaysia ourselves are not able to stand up to US and China, our best chance is if ASEAN remains solid. To resolve the South China Sea issue with China, we must ensure that ASEAN's solidarity is strong and we remain united as one bloc,” he reiterated.
He added that he will raise these issues on a scheduled phone call with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday night, and later in a discussion with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday.
READ: China conducts military drills in South China Sea
China claims much of the South China Sea, but there are also overlapping claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Washington and its allies have also challenged Beijing’s territorial claims.
Washington has called on Beijing to stop "bullying tactics" in the South China Sea and accused the latter of pushing its presence in the disputed waters while other claimants are pre-occupied with battling COVID-19.
THE BATTLE OF DIPLOMATIC NOTES
In December 2019, Malaysia filed a submission with the United Nations, seeking to establish the limits of Malaysia's continental shelf in the northern part of the disputed area.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, any country can claim exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles from their shoreline. China, however, claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$3.4 trillion worth of goods are transported every year.
Malaysia said in its submission that there were areas of potential overlapping claims beyond its own exclusive economic zone.
China objected the filing, saying Malaysia's submission had "seriously infringed on China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea".
In response, the Malaysian government issued a note verbale to the UN on Jul 29 saying that it rejected “China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dash line’.”
A note verbale is submitted to the UN secretary general with the request that it is sent to other member states.
Malaysia's note added that China's claim in the disputed area "has no basis under international law" and it "rejects in its entirety the content" of China's objection.
In April, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called for calm in the South China Sea and reaffirmed Malaysia's commitment to peace in the disputed waters.
This came after reports that a Chinese government survey ship was "tagging" an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia's state oil company Petronas in the South China Sea.
On this incident, Mr Hishamuddin said on Wednesday that he was proud of the efforts by his ministry, which under his leadership, had managed to resolve the standoff between the Chinese vessel and US and Australia warships.
The standoff happened when the US and Australia warships arrived in the South China Sea near an area where a Chinese government survey vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, had been operating close to a drillship under contract to Petronas.
“At the time China ships were facing military vessels from Australia and US ships, and through our diplomatic efforts, China ships are no longer in that area,” Mr Hishammuddin said.