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Malaysian government clarifies PM’s statements on South China Sea

Malaysia’s government was on the defensive as it clarified its South China Sea policy, a day after the opposition leader skewered Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim for apparently taking a softer stance over a territorial dispute with China. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement on the issue at the weekend amid a buzz among the public and analysts about comments that Anwar made after he returned from his first official visit to China as PM.   

In its statement, the foreign office said that the country’s position on the South China Sea “is consistent and remains unchanged.”

“The Government of Malaysia is unequivocally and firmly committed to protecting Malaysia’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and interests in its maritime areas in the South China Sea, as depicted by our 1979 Map,” it said.

The 1979 Map, issued by the Malaysian Department of Mapping and Survey, has served as the official reference for the country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“Malaysia firmly holds the view that matters relating to the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully and constructively, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982 UNCLOS),” the statement said.

By stating the term “negotiation,” Prime Minister Anwar had “made the point that issues relating to the South China Sea should be discussed or resolved in a peaceful manner… and without compromising Malaysia’s principled position, to avoid any escalation of disputes and the threat or use of force,” the ministry further stated.

“[I]t is therefore within this context that Malaysia will continue the diplomatic approach in our engagements with other States, including China,” it said. 

After he returned from his trip to Beijing, the prime minister said he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping that, as a small country, Malaysia needed to continue with oil exploration in the waters of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Radio Free Asia and affiliated organization BenarNews reported on April 5.

But “if the condition is that there must be negotiations to secure [our rights], then we are prepared to negotiate” with China, Anwar said.

His remarks raised eyebrows in Malaysia and abroad because it seemed he was climbing down from the tougher stance that he took on the South China Sea issue before he became prime minister. 

The PM, while afterwards answering questions in Parliament, seemed to adjust his conciliatory tone by adding that he “insisted that the area … falls within Malaysia’s territory” and that “in the meantime our exploration efforts will continue.”

During his meeting with Xi in Beijing, the Chinese leader brought up the offshore work of Malaysian state petrochemical firm Petronas in the  Southeast Asian nation’s EEZ in the South China Sea, Anwar also told lawmakers.

He said he told Xi that Petronas would continue its work because “Malaysia considered the area as part of its territory,” but “should China feel that they have the rights to the area, we could discuss and negotiate the matter.”

On Thursday, Muhyiddin Yassin, leader of the Bersatu party that heads the opposition Perikatan coalition, ripped Anwar for his comments.

“This statement is reckless and should never be issued by a prime minister. The indirect implications of this statement have indirectly acknowledged the Chinese claim to territories that are already Malaysian territory that must be defended,” Muhyiddin said.

The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest waterways and has an abundance of natural resources. It is home to several flashpoints involving maritime disputes over oil and gas exploration projects and fishing rights.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Johor oilrig.JPG
An oil rig is seen off the coast of Johor, Malaysia, Nov. 7, 2017.  Credit: Reuters/Henning Gloystein

The initial statement by Anwar about his government being “prepared to negotiate” with China about the rights to explore natural resources in the South China Sea had led to some criticism that Malaysia’s sovereignty and jurisdiction on its continental shelf is recognized and not a matter of dispute or up for negotiation.

Analysts warned against what they see as “China’s bilateral approach” where Beijing tries to “divide and conquer” members of the Southeast Asian bloc ASEAN when it comes to the South China Sea disputes using its superior economic weight.

“Xi Jinping has used official state visits by President Marcos Jr. of the Philippines in January and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in April to press China’s claims in the South China Sea and to press for bilateral discussions,” said Carlyle Thayer, a veteran regional specialist.

Several ASEAN states have accused China of impeding and harassing their oil and gas activities in areas within their exclusive economic zones that also fall within China’s nine-dash line, which Beijing uses to claim “historic rights” to almost 90% of the South China Sea. 

In 2016, a U.N. tribunal declared this imaginary boundary as illegal, in a case brought by the Philippines.

Edited by Imran Vittachi.