International arbitration the way to go for Asia’s maritime disputes


Media attention during Barack Obama’s four-nation Asian trip focused, understandably perhaps, on the three countries that are US allies – Japan, South Korea and the Philippines – and, in particular, on developments with military significance, such as the American president’s assurance that the US-Japan security treaty covered the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands claimed by China.

Conflict, after all, is much more newsworthy than peace. So when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak issued a joint statement with Obama supporting the use of international arbitration to resolve South China Sea disputes, it received scant coverage.

If Japan were to change its stance and accept the court’s jurisdiction on its dispute with China, it would put great pressure on Beijing to also accept international arbitration

That was unfortunate. Malaysia, after all, is a claimant in these disputes, although it appears to have adopted a deliberately low profile.

With Malaysia, the dispute is over James Shoal, which China calls Zengmu Reef. When Xinhua reported in February that a Chinese flotilla had patrolled waters off the reef, for example, Malaysia did not issue a protest but insisted that no such incident had taken place.

It is important that Malaysia has now publicly endorsed the principle of “resolving territorial and maritime disputes through peaceful means, including international arbitration, as warranted”.


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