Updated at 3:58 p.m. ET on 2020-09-03
Malaysia and the Philippines have taken their argument over who owns the Malaysian state of Sabah all the way to the United Nations, in what analysts describe as the heating up of a long-running dispute for domestic political consumption.
The latest round of the spat stems from Malaysia’s submission to the United Nations late last year that sought to extend its continental shelf beyond the standard 200 nautical miles off the northernmost point of Malaysian Borneo, ostensibly to ward off Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.
That move drew a rebuke from the Philippines in March, via a so-called note verbale addressed to the U.N. secretary-general, stating that Malaysia was projecting its claim from parts of North Borneo “over which the Republic of the Philippines has never relinquished its sovereignty.”
Last week, Malaysia fired back with its own letter to U.N. chief Antonio Guterres, saying that its request and reckonings of its boundaries were legitimate under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS).
“[T]he Permanent Mission of Malaysia wishes also to inform the Secretary-General that Malaysia has never recognized the Republic of the Philippines’ claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah, formerly known as North Borneo,” the Malaysian Mission to the United Nations said in the letter on Aug. 27, adding that the Philippine claim had “no basis under international law.”
The two sides also sparred in their dispatches over ownership of the Kalayaan Islands, part of the larger island chain known as the Spratlys, which are contested by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, China and Taiwan.
Setting the agenda
The Sabah issue has for decades been a thorn in relations between the two neighbors – both founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – and the letters addressed to the U.N. chief are a rare development in the dispute.
“I think both countries are using the Sabah issue to divert attention away from growing domestic problems arising from the [COVID-19] pandemic,” security analyst Rommel Banlaoi, of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research told BenarNews, when asked why the long-simmering issue came to a boil lately.
But, he added, “The Philippines’ and Malaysia’s rhetoric on the Sabah issue is calculated so as not to affect ASEAN solidarity.”
A Malaysian analyst agreed that the revival of the Sabah issue had more to do with domestic politics.
“I believe the current vocal statements on Sabah by various Filipino political leaders are more for their internal politics, setting their political agenda, so to speak, in preparation for the presidential election in ,” said Lee Kuok Tiung, a professor in the Communications Department at Universiti Malaysia Sabah.
Votes in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, which lies close to Sabah, have become crucial to politicians from other parts of the Philippines who have presidential ambitions, he said.
“They need to please the Muslim southerners … to court their votes in  – thus the strong statements on Sabah,” he told BenarNews.
“And of course, with the immense economic suffering inflicted by COVID-19, they need to find a country to blame for their misery.”
Founded in 1405, the Sultanate of Sulu ruled the islands in the Sulu Archipelago, parts of Mindanao in the southern Philippines and parts of Borneo, including Sabah, until the early 1800s. Sabah was incorporated into Malaysia in 1963, but the country still pays token rent to the Sulu Sultanate on an annual basis.
In 2013, some 200 men from the southern Philippines, who called themselves members of the “Royal Sulu Army” and claimed to be followers of rightful heir of the sultan of Sulu, sailed to Sabah in a failed bid to retake the territory. His men engaged Malaysian authorities in gun battles that lasted weeks and left more than 50 gunmen and some 10 Malaysian police officers dead.
In recent weeks, the top diplomats of both countries have exchanged heated words over Sabah.
At the end of July, Teodoro Locsin Jr., the Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, blasted Malaysia on the issue.
“No country can tell another what it can and cannot say about what the latter regards as rightfully its own,” Locsin declared via Twitter, after Malaysia’s foreign minister criticized him for saying that Sabah was “not in Malaysia.”
Locsin’s Malaysian counterpart, Hishammuddin Hussein, shot back on Aug. 6, saying on the parliamentary floor, “I’ve made Malaysia’s stand on Sabah clear before. There is no question about it – Sabah will forever be a part of Malaysia.”
A spokesman for Hishammuddin told BenarNews that the foreign minister “continues to affirm his stance as made in parliament recently.”
In the meantime, Locsin said this week that he would revive a departmental office dedicated to Philippine government efforts on the Sabah issue, according to Philippine news reports.
In addition, a proposal by a Philippine congressional committee to include Sabah in a map of the Philippines to be printed in Philippine passports has grabbed headlines in Malaysia.
On Thursday, Malaysia’s senior opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim ripped Locsin for his comments about setting up a Sabah office within his agency.
“Sabah is unequivocally a part of Malaysia. This is a decision which Sabahans themselves embraced in 1963. Malaysians are united in defending every inch of our territory,” Anwar said.
Anwar issued the statement as the state in Malaysian Borneo, which is seen as a pivotal in national elections, is gearing up for local polls later this month.
“Malaysia, Philippines, and other neighbors in ASEAN are partners in addressing geopolitical and security issues that impact our nations and peoples,” he added. “Now is not the time for political grandstanding and unprovoked saber-rattling.”