Malaysia and Vietnam on Wednesday expressed “serious concern over recent developments in the South China Sea” after Chinese vessels challenged their energy assets and sea boundaries in the disputed region.
The two countries issued a joint statement underscoring “the importance” of maintaining peace, stability, security and the rule of law in the vast sea in conjunction with a three-day visit to Vietnam by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir held talks with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Tuesday, after which Phuc said the two countries would work closely with other Southeast Asian nations to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in disputed areas in the South China Sea, Malaysian media reported.
In their statement, Malaysia and Vietnam also emphasized “the importance of self-restraint, non-militarization” and “avoidance of activities that may escalate tensions.”
The statement came as a Chinese survey vessel extended its activities to an area closer to Vietnam's coastline at the weekend and the Chinese coast guard tracked around an oil rig on Malaysia’s continental shelf.
The Haiyang Dizhi 8 vessel first entered Vietnam's exclusive economic zone early last month for seismic survey, triggering a tense standoff between military and coast guard vessels from Vietnam and China.
Hanoi described the incursions as a “serious violation” of Vietnamese sovereignty and demanded that Beijing remove the vessel.
The United States accused China of using “bullying tactics” by carrying out "coercive interference" in oil and gas activities in waters claimed by Vietnam.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have overlapping territorial claims to the sea, which is vital to international shipping and trade.
Meanwhile, a Chinese survey ship, “Shiyan 2,” was spotted operating in Malaysia’s EEZ near the Luconia Breakers, according to information posted on Twitter on Aug. 4 by Ryan Martinson, a professor at the U.S. Naval College in Washington. On Aug. 9, he reported that the same ship was continuing to operate in the EEZ, which lies off Sarawak state in Malaysian Borneo.
On Aug. 14, Martinson posted more information saying that another Chinese survey ship, “Haiyang 4,” was heading to Malaysia’s exclusive zone.
Malaysian officials have not confirmed the reports about the alleged intrusions but told BenarNews that they would look into them.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said recently that the 2002 Declaration of Conduct Parties, which set loose guidelines of behavior by claimant nations in the sea region, had “no fangs” and Beijing’s militarization could potentially escalate regional tensions.
In their joint statement Wednesday, Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi underlined support for the full and effective implementation of a code of conduct in the sea region.
“The two sides agreed that disputes shall be resolved through peaceful means, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use or force,” the statement said.
China has built numerous military installations with advanced ballistic-missile capabilities on reclaimed islands under its control in the South China Sea.