Malaysia wants to resolve South China Sea dispute together as Asean, minister says

Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah says Malaysia is seeking to address the issue of the South China Sea in an Asean-centric way instead of via bilateral methods. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah says Malaysia is seeking to address the issue of the South China Sea in an Asean-centric way instead of via bilateral methods. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

KUALA LUMPUR, May 13 — Malaysia is seeking to address the issue of the South China Sea in an Asean-centric way instead of via bilateral methods, said Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah.

He said the claims by China over sovereignty of the South China Sea is “a bit overboard”, adding it was often joked about what would happen if India decided to do the same to the Indian Ocean.

“Malaysia is sticking to Asean-central ways of dealing with China. It is asking each of us, with the exception of a few such as Myanmar, if it can discuss the matter on a bilateral basis,” Saifuddin said during an interview on BFM 89.9's Breakfast Grille session.

Although one or two countries in the Southeast Asian region have done so, none have attempted to conduct it collectively.

“We always tell Beijing that we will discuss the South China Sea on a group level. It may not necessarily have to be that rigid, but as far as Malaysia is concerned it has to be in a group,” he said.

When asked if the United States would be considered the ideal choice to act as a counterbalance, Saifuddin said he feels Thailand would be the best country in the region to do a balancing act.

“The major thing is we do not want [China] or any other party to escalate matters. South-East Asia is a place where people not only come to do business, but to exert their geopolitical influence.

“We are aware of that, and we tell them that we welcome them to do business, but also emphasise that we want this area to be known as a trade region of peace,” he said.

China uses a vague demarcation system known as the Nine-Dash Line in claiming a major portion of the South China Sea. This includes contested areas such as the Spratly islands, the Paracel Islands, the Scarborough Shoal, and the Macclesfield Bank.

However in July 2016 China's claims were ruled against by an arbitral tribunal which gathered under the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea's Annex VII, which had been requested by the Philippines. In turn both it and the People's Republic of China claimed they do not recognise the tribunal's authority, and that the issue should be resolved via bilateral negotiations.