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Malaysia Seeks Non-Militarization of South China Sea

Hadi Azmi & Ray Sherman
Kuala Lumpur
2019-09-18
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Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah hold a copy of the government newly unveiled Foreign Policy Framework during its launch in Putrajaya, Sept. 18, 2019.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah hold a copy of the government newly unveiled Foreign Policy Framework during its launch in Putrajaya, Sept. 18, 2019.
Reuters

Malaysia called Wednesday for non-militarization of the South China Sea, as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad unveiled his Pakatan Harapan government’s first comprehensive foreign policy document since it took power last year.

The 80-page document, described by Mahathir as a “guiding framework,” said the nation would also adopt a non-aligned stance in its relations with major powers.

The document did not specifically mention China or the United States, but it formally laid out the Southeast Asian nation’s foreign policy on the South China Sea under the new government.

Last year, months after his stunning electoral victory, Mahathir told U.S. Vice President Mike Pence that his country did not wish to see warships in the disputed sea region.

“In its relations with major powers, Malaysia will practice the non-aligned policy and approach,” the document said, underscoring that Mahathir had proposed “non-militarization of the South China Sea and for the regional waters to be turned to a region of peace, friendship and trade.”

Mahathir, in a speech during the ceremony launching the foreign policy, said “multilateralism was under threat” and that “powerful countries [were] unilaterally imposing their will on others.”

“Malaysia is extremely concerned over this development,” he said, without elaborating.

China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – to which Malaysia belongs – have been negotiating a “code of conduct,” a pact aimed at averting aggressive acts by claimant states in the sea’s disputed territories.

In recent months, U.S. warships have sailed in the South China Sea as part of “freedom of navigation operations.” Those moves have led to Beijing accusing the United States of trespassing in its territorial waters.

Meanwhile, security analysts say, Beijing has installed anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile systems on three islands in the Spratlys, a disputed group of atolls and isles in the waterway. Beijing claims nearly all of the mineral-rich sea, which is also contested by Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Mahathir’s comments on Wednesday came days after the U.S. Navy destroyer Wayne E. Meyer sailed near islands claimed by China in the busy waterway.

In its foreign policy framework, Malaysia said security threats from overlapping claims in the sea region “have been well contained and effectively managed diplomatically,” but it underscored that “there are some flashpoints which might beget crisis or war if not properly handled.”

Recognizing terrorism as a complex issue

In confronting militancy as part of its foreign policy, Malaysia will “continue to be a strong and active participant in global efforts to fight terrorism and violent extremism, in all its forms and manifestations,” Mahathir’s government said in the framework document.

“Resolving the problem of terrorism requires a strong and genuine political will,” it said.

The battle would require “a holistic plan of action, clear and systematic line of authority, the effective involvement of non-state actors, as well as transparent sharing of information” between nations involved in the fight, the document stated.

In its anti-terror campaign, Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation of 32 million people, will promote the role of the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counter-Terrorism as a reference point on militancy issues, the foreign policy framework said. The Kuala Lumpur-based agency under the foreign affairs ministry provides training for security officials in the region.

At least 154 fighters from Malaysia joined more than 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries in fighting for militant groups, including Islamic State (IS), in Syria and Iraq, according to security analysts.

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