KOTA KINABALU, MALAYSIA (Reuters) – Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister said the country must defend encroachment of its sovereignty in a veiled swipe at China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, as tensions flared ahead of a regional meeting that Beijing will attend.
Without directly referring to China, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi questioned why land was being reclaimed on coral areas close to Malaysia’s shores.
“If our country is threatened or being encroached, we Malaysians should rise to defend our country,” he told a gathering in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island.
Beijing, which claims almost the entire energy-rich South China Sea through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes to yearly, has stepped up land reclamation and construction in disputed islands and reefs.
But the U.S. challenged the territorial limits China claims around the islands in recent weeks with a so-called freedom-of-navigation patrol.
Malaysia, which will host the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting later this month to be attended by U.S, China and other world powers, claims a portion of the disputed waterways along with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei.