KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – It was just a one liner among a host of policy shifts announced by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad after the weekly Cabinet meeting.
Malaysia, said the Prime Minister, preferred if there were no warships within its waters in the South China Sea and Straits of Malacca.
When pressed, he said it was unhealthy when countries started asking if they should send their warships seeing other countries having theirs in these contested maritime areas.
The buzz among officials is that Dr Mahathir was referring to the disputed South China Sea.
Recent rapid deployment of Chinese military assets in the area claimed by six countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and China – is causing concern.
Last month, China’s airforce landed bombers on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea as part of a training exercise, triggering concern in Vietnam and the Philippines.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said China’s conduct was designed to intimidate and coerce neighbours. Malaysia has yet to react to these developments – probably due to the country being in post-election mode.
And when it comes to the South China Sea, the previous administration preferred to deal behind closed doors.
Almost a month after forming the new government, with a foreign minister yet to be appointed, Dr Mahathir decided to tackle the issue for the first time, without naming any country.
Dr Mahathir probably realised that this is an issue Malaysia needed to address quickly because China has become bolder in the contested areas.
Foreign Ministry officials have kept the Prime Minister updated on issues as they need to gauge the direction he is taking on foreign policy.