KUALA LUMPUR, April 19 — Territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the competing interests of the world’s superpowers in South-east Asia have made the effort to maintain regional peace and stability tougher, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said today.
Speaking at an international defence forum here, Ahmad Zahid said territorial conflicts will require governments to double up efforts for engagement to defuse possible tensions arising from the disputes.
“There are still several security issues that remain a challenge in our efforts to ensure continued peace and stability in this region… the geopolitics of the region is also changing rapidly, with the competing interests of major powers contesting for primacy in this part of the world,” Zahid said in his closing address of the Putrajaya Forum.
“In particular of late, the South China Sea disputes and the intercession of external interests make the effort to maintain peace, security and stability in the region more complex,” he added.
China has sparked tension over its claim over several disputed atolls in the South China sea, and recently rejected efforts to settle the dispute through the international courts.
The permanent arbitration court in The Hague is expected to deliver a verdict on the dispute brought by the Philippines sometime next month.
Apart from China, Malaysia and neighbouring Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam have also made similar claims on sovereignty.
Despite protesting China’s claim, Ahmad Zahid said today that Putrajaya continues to believe that the dispute could be settled through continued engagement.
“Sincere efforts to diffuse tensions may now require a multitude of engagements as well as deft negotiation processes and of course, strong leadership,” he said.
China’s attempt to build what has been reported to be a military asset on the Spratly Islands has prompted American interference, which is also aiming to counter China’s growing influence in the region through economic and political co-operation.
In February, the United States and the European Union warned China it should respect the ruling from The Hague. However, the court has no powers to enforce its rulings.
Washington has also expressed concerns that China may use a negative ruling as a pretext to declare an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea, Reuters reported yesterday.