Malaysia’s Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein yesterday urged the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) to band together on the South China Sea issue so as to prevent major powers from dictating regional politics.
“Alone, we cannot face them, but as a coalition of 10 countries, I am confident that even China cannot take us lightly or ignore our stand,” said the Minister, referring to the diplomatic row over how China seized an American navy underwater drone in waters off the Philippines last week.
He said Malaysia remains firmly against the escalating deployment of military assets in disputed territories in the South China Sea, even if it means standing up to the United States and China.
Mr Hishammuddin said Royal Malaysian Navy Chief Admiral Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin has been appointed as Malaysia’s representative in the territorial disputes. “He will be our point person with a direct line to both the United States and China.”
Beijing claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$7.2 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
An international tribunal in The Hague ruled in July that China had no historic title over the waters and had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights there. Beijing has vowed to ignore the ruling.
Asean’s unity has been questioned after a joint statement issued by the grouping’s foreign ministers in July made no specific mention of the ruling, with some member states believed to have caved in to Chinese pressure.
Last Thursday, tensions boiled over when China seized an American underwater drone operating in the South China Sea. But Beijing has since said it would return the drone.
A US think tank also reported last week that new satellite imagery indicated that China has installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea. Mr Hishammuddin stated last Friday he would write to his Chinese counterpart for an explanation, despite earlier signs that Putrajaya is pivoting towards Beijing.
Mr Hishammuddin said Asean member states should also take action to prevent tension among themselves.
On Malaysia’s part, he said the navy needs to increase monitoring activities to prevent incidents involving fishermen or maritime authorities in the region. “We hope that this will ensure our region is safe and stable, and free from geopolitical considerations of superpowers,” added the Minister.