Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim said Southeast Asian nations have to defend their territory amid Beijing’s aggressive moves to expand shoals into artificial islands and build military facilities in the South China Sea.
Anwar, who is widely expected to take over eventually from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, made his statement during an open forum near the U.S. capital on Sunday, the same day that Washington drew Beijing’s ire for sending two warships near the disputed Spratly Islands.
“On the South China Sea, we have taken a position that we will defend our territory,” Anwar, 71, said in reply to a question that followed his speech at the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a nonprofit based in Herndon, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington.
“The best option is to work with other small countries in ASEAN to defend our security position, particularly because we cannot expect the United States – given situation now – to be more positive with regard to the region,” Anwar said, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Shortly after the American navy sailed the guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble within 12 nautical miles of the Spratlys on Sunday night, China accused the United States of trespassing in its territorial waters, warning that it had deployed missiles “capable of targeting medium and large ships.”
“The U.S. action violated the Chinese laws and international laws, infringed China’s sovereignty, damaged regional peace, security, and order,” Lu Kang, the spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Beijing. “China will take necessary actions to protect state sovereignty.”
China’s warning came as officials from the two nations were in Beijing for a new round of trade talks scheduled for this week.
The U.S. Navy said the destroyers sailed as part of “freedom of navigation operation.” In January, the destroyer USS McCampbell also sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands.
Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet, was quoted by CNN as saying that Sunday’s operation was carried out “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.”
The Spratly Islands, a chain of potentially mineral-rich islands and atolls in the South China Sea, are claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan and the Southeast Asian countries of Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
It is considered a flashpoint in the region. The claimants have agreed to desist from any actions that would complicate the matter, although China has been expanding and militarizing islands it occupies.
Beijing claims nearly the whole of the South China Sea, insisting that it has indisputable sovereignty over the region.
Keep negotiating with China, Anwar says
During his remarks in Virginia on Sunday, Anwar also defended the Mahathir government’s decision last month to keep negotiating with Beijing over controversial China-backed projects.
“With China, we have to continue to engage because it’s a very strong neighbor, powerful neighbor but strong economy,” he said. “For our survival, we need investments, trade with the Chinese.”
However, Anwar said, Malaysia must renegotiate contracts “when the economy does not allow us to go through these huge mega projects because of exorbitant price increase.”
“If we fail, we cancel because the country can ill afford,” he said, underscoring the government’s right to junk agreements that were signed under “questionable or dubious” circumstances.
Anwar did not specifically mention the controversial U.S. $20 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a 688-km (430-mile) railway project to connect the western and eastern coasts of the Malaysian peninsula.
In January, Malaysian Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said the Malaysian Cabinet had decided to adopt a statement from Mahathir that Kuala Lumpur would still keep negotiating the ECRL deal with Beijing.
ECRL, the centerpiece of China’s infrastructure push in Malaysia, was to be financed in large part by the Export-Import Bank of China. The project is a Malaysian component of China’s massive One Belt, One Road (OBOR) international infrastructure expansion program.
“In my experience in the government in the past, we would always say we will honor all our commitments, but when we have reasons, compelling case that the agreement signed is dubious, or through bribery, et cetera, then we can always question,” Anwar said.
After he returned to power as a result of a stunning electoral triumph last May, Mahathir has issued statements implying that several China-backed projects approved by his predecessor, Najib Razak, would be placed on the back burner.
Anwar, a twice-jailed 70-year-old former deputy prime minister, received a royal full-pardon after the May general election led to a landslide victory for the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), an upstart coalition of political parties that he led together with Mahathir.
During the open forum, Anwar also defended Mahathir’s decision in October last year to free 11 ethnic Uyghur Muslims, allowing them to leave for Turkey. Mahathir, defying Beijing’s request that they be repatriated, said the refugees had not broken laws in his country.
“This engagement with the Chinese should not bar us from raising questions or issues which affect not only the interest of the country but justice for any community,” Anwar said.
Anwar made the statement a day after Turkey denounced Beijing's controversial mass “re-education” camps in China's western region of Xinjiang, calling them a “great shame for humanity.”
Turkey, in a strongly-worded statement issued by its foreign ministry spokesman, said thousands had been subjected to torture and brainwashing in the Chinese camps.
Chinese state-run media has strongly refuted some of Turkey’s claims, saying they “violated the facts.”