KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – It was just a six-paragraph statement issued by the Defence Ministry.
It was the outcome of a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC between United States Defence Secretary James Mattis and his Malaysian counterpart Mohamad Sabu.
After one reading, most would dismiss it as a discussion on defence and security issues.
But the second paragraph of the Mindef statement issued on Tuesday (Sept 25) and reported by several local media has caught the attention of Malaysian officials.
The line in the statement issued by Mindef reads: “The discussion among others touched on the issue of peace in the South China Sea where Malaysia will continue its stance of neutrality.”
Several questions came to mind. When is Malaysia neutral on South China Sea? Does Malaysia now have a new policy on its maritime claims in the South China Sea?
If we are still one, then Malaysia cannot afford to be neutral.
It is a national position which Malaysia as taken for as long as one can remember – dating back to the first time Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad served as the Prime Minister.
This position has consistently been upheld by successive administrations of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
Malaysia’s position on the South China Sea issue is clear and consistent. We are a claimant state and Malaysia takes the position that all claims must be based and resolved in accordance with international law, in particular the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) on the overlapping claims.
When contacted, several officials insisted that the Mindef statement did not reflect the true picture of Malaysia’s claim in the area.
“I don’t recall any discussion on Malaysia changing its position on claims in South China Sea. In addition, the code of conduct (CoC) negotiation is still ongoing between Asean and China,” said an official.
The official was referring to the Asean and China negotiations on a binding code to address numerous issues faced by claimant parties since 2002.
The proposed code seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DoC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which commits to following the Unclos, ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight, and refraining from the action of inhabiting the presently uninhabited island, reefs, shoals, cays and other features.
The area, which has rich fishing grounds along with oil and gas deposits, is claimed by four Asean countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China and Taiwan are the two non-Asean claimant parties.
In August this year, Asean and China agreed on a draft CoC that will lay the foundation for negotiations over the disputed maritime area.
Negotiations on the code is under the purview of the Foreign Ministry.
While these negotiations are taking place, China continues to aggressively make its presence felt with militarisation activities in the region which Beijing says are being done peacefully.
Lately, more countries including Britain, Japan and the United States have found common cause in countering growing Chinese influence in the region that they worry could put key commercial sea lanes linking Asia with Europe, the United States and elsewhere under Beijing’s sway.
With more countries getting involved in the South China Sea area, it came as a surprise that Mindef decided to issue a statement on Malaysia’s “stance of neutrality” after the meeting between Mohamad and Mattis.