SINGAPORE – The South China Sea should not be a theater for the United States and China to show off their military capabilities as they vie for influence in the region, Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu said Saturday.
“Warships, B-52s, anything, we don’t want them to show force in this area. They understand our language loud and clear today, both the major powers,” he told Kyodo News in an interview in Singapore on the sidelines of the Fifth ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus gathering.
“All 10 (member nations) in ASEAN spoke in one voice that we want to make friends with China and the United States but we don’t want them to show strength in the South China Sea,” he stressed.
The ADMM-Plus, held earlier that day, was attended by 10 ASEAN defense ministers and eight counterparts from outside the bloc, including the United States and China.
Just four days before the meeting, two U.S. B-52 bombers flew over the disputed South China Sea in what was seen as another power play by the United States as it positions itself against China for influence in Southeast Asia.
The U.S. Air Force said the dispatch of the bombers to the region was part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s “Continuous Bomber Presence operations,” ongoing since March 2004, and “is consistent with international law and the United States’ long-standing commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Less than a month ago, two U.S. B-52s flew over the disputed waters in a similar display of force.
China is sensitive about such U.S. operations, especially when planes or vessels are sent into areas where it has installed military facilities on artificial islands created on disputed features.
“We respect both countries, both powers. We don’t side with either China or America. We want to make friends with both the major powers. They also have to respect ASEAN,” Mohamad said.
In a move aimed at countering China’s regional influence, the United States had proposed a joint maritime exercise with ASEAN next year.
“Yes, it was proposed by the U.S., and ASEAN agreed,” Mohamad said.
The military exercise would be the first involving the United States and ASEAN and it comes as the regional bloc is set to conduct its first-ever joint naval exercise with China from Monday to Oct. 28 off China’s southern coastal city of Zhanjiang, the home of the South Sea Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army.
China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, one of the most heavily trafficked international waterways, overlap with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The eight countries from outside the region are the United States, Japan, China, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.