South China Sea: Malaysia Urges Nations to Stand Down from ‘Military Posturing’

Noah Lee and Drake Long
Kuala Lumpur and Washington
200715-MY-CH-US-SoutChinaSea1000.jpg This aerial photograph taken from a military aircraft shows alleged on-going reclamation by China on Mischief Reef, an atoll in the Spratly chain in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015.

Updated at 1:55 p.m. ET on 2021-02-05

Malaysia on Wednesday called for countries to refrain from “military posturing” amid tensions in the South China Sea, two days after Washington announced a tougher stance on Beijing’s territorial claims in the contested waterway.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called for cooperation among Southeast Asian nations in solving tensions in the maritime region as he made his first public comments on the South China Sea in nearly three months.

“We have to avoid military posturing as it is not going to help in solving the problem, and we need all the ASEAN countries to agree on that … Right now we seem to be on the same page and that’s the only way we can face off with China and the U.S.,” he said during a news conference about a range of issues on the sidelines of a parliamentary session in Kuala Lumpur.

“Malaysia is too small to be able to find solution to this on our own.”

In recent weeks, both China and the United States have conducted naval exercises or maneuvers in the South China Sea. In early July, the U.S. Navy sailed two aircraft carrier groups into the waterway after China’s navy staged an exercise in the Paracel Islands.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the world would not allow Beijing to treat the contested waterway as “its maritime empire,” and Washington stood with its Southeast Asian allies “in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.”

The next day, Beijing shot back. Its embassy to the United States accused Washington of continuing to “interfere” in the South China Sea issue and “stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region” as well as flexing its muscles “under the pretext of preserving stability.”

Malaysia and three other member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc – the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei – along with China and Taiwan have contending claims in the sea region, where Beijing has been building artificial islands and military installations in areas it occupies.

“[M]y stand is very clear we will not compromise of our sovereignty, the geopolitics of [the] superpower [rivalry] between the U.S. and China, that is for them to settle and it is not a simple matter. It is a very complex matter,” said Hishammuddin, who became Malaysia’s top diplomat after the Perikatan Nasional government took power in early March.

The new government has kept relatively quiet on the South China Sea issue, even as international tensions rose in or near Malaysian territorial waters in April after a Chinese survey ship deployed close to a Malaysian-contracted oil exploration vessel, the West Capella. The Chinese ship was escorted by ships from the China Coast Guard. In response, the United States and Australia sent warships to the area.

At the time, Malaysia’s coast guard said it was monitoring the survey ship’s movements, but it had “not done any activities that break the laws.”

A few days later, Hishammuddin issued a statement saying that territorial issues in the sea region should be solved peacefully based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

On Wednesday, he echoed a comment he made back in April by saying he feared that military posturing could lead to “incidents or accidents happening on the high seas that [could] end up in war.”

At the news conference, the foreign minister also said that “there are no more China ships in our waters,” when a reporter asked him about an auditor-general’s newly published report, which revealed that Chinese navy or coast guard ships had intruded into Malaysian waters off Borneo Island 89 times between 2016 and 2019.

Despite the latest comments by the foreign minister, vessel tracking data shows that Chinese ships have been intruding into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone for months.

The China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel 5204 was patrolling around the Luconia Shoals, from May 22 to July 7, according to the data. China claims the shoals, which sits within 200 nautical miles (370 km) off Malaysia’s coast, as part of its territory.

The Chinese ship was subsequently replaced by CCG vessel 5202, which sailed into Luconia Shoals on the same day that the 5204 left. The 5202 was still in the area as of Wednesday morning.

However, while responding to a follow-up question from a reporter, Hishammuddin acknowledged that both Chinese and American ships had been in Malaysian waters recently.

“Yes, they were there and the U.S. was ship was also there. So what do we do? In that sort of situation we just have to make sure that … they don’t collide and they don’t stay in our waters. That’s the best diplomacy that we can do,” he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version gave the wrong name for the coalition that leads Malaysia's government.


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