Malaysian opposition slams PM for ‘reckless’ South China Sea statement to Beijing

Ili Shazwani
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian opposition slams PM for ‘reckless’ South China Sea statement to Beijing Former Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin acknowledges supporters outside the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex, March 10, 2023.
[Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

The country’s main opposition bloc has slammed Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim for his “reckless” statement this week that Kuala Lumpur would negotiate with Beijing on South China Sea territory disputed between the two nations. 

Anwar’s statement, made after his first official visit to China as PM last week, risked the country’s sovereignty because it referred to Malaysian territory, said Perikatan Nasional leader and former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in a Facebook post late Thursday.

On Tuesday, Anwar told Parliament that the issue of the disputed waterway was discussed when he was in Beijing, when China brought up Malaysian state petrochemical firm Petronas’ offshore work in the Southeast Asian nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.

Anwar said he told China that Petronas would continue its work because “Malaysia considered the area as part of its territory,” but “should China feel that they have the rights to the area, we could discuss and negotiate the matter.”

Muhyiddin, leader of the Bersatu party that heads the Perikatan coalition, said Anwar’s statements were irresponsible.

“This statement is reckless and should never be issued by a prime minister. The indirect implications of this statement have indirectly acknowledged the Chinese claim to territories that are already Malaysian territory that must be defended,” Muhyiddin said on Facebook late Thursday.

“In fact, the Petronas area referred to by the prime minister is in Malaysian territory and cannot be negotiated even though claimed by the Chinese country.”

Anwar didn’t specify which project was being referred to, although it is believed to be the Kasawari project off the coast of Sarawak and southeast of the Luconia Shoals, within Malaysia’s EEZ.

Kasawari is seeing heightened activity as it is slated to begin production this year, according to a Washington think tank.

Muhyiddin said Anwar’s statement invited a risk of threat to Malaysia’s sovereignty. 

“Malaysia must firmly defend the sovereignty of the province and national security to protect the rights and claims of the country's territories,” Muhyiddin said on Facebook.

“The prime minister's statements made in Parliament are very weak, very irresponsible and appear to be pledging the dignity and sovereignty of the country to foreign powers.”

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the EEZs of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the waterway overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ as well.

The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest waterways and has an abundance of natural resources. It is home to several flashpoints involving maritime disputes over oil and gas exploration projects and fishing rights.

China has been asserting its presence in the South China Sea by having its ships, military or non-military, at almost all times in the disputed waters, near Beting Patinggi Ali, which is known internationally as Luconia Shoals, analysts have said. 

In January, Malaysia sent a military ship to shadow a Chinese ship patrolling close to the Kasawari project.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington noted that the China Coast Guard ship CCG 5901 arrived at Luconia Shoals on Feb. 17 and as of Thursday was still there.

ASEAN’s position

Muhyiddin said any discussion on Chinese claims ought to be in line with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) consensus and the South China Sea Code of Conduct.

“While Malaysia recognizes China as a global economic power, our country's sovereignty cannot be compromised at all,” Muhyiddin said.

“Considering ASEAN's position as a combination of 10 countries, Malaysia must address the international maritime issue more cautiously guided by the principle of national sovereignty and ASEAN idea.”

This year’s ASEAN chair, Indonesia, has restarted negotiations with China on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. ASEAN member-states and Chinese officials held their first round of talks during the second week of March. 

ASEAN members want a code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea to be “effective, substantive and actionable,” Jakarta said after the talks, although an Indonesian Foreign Ministry official skirted the issue when asked if the code would be binding.

 Anwar apparently told a Chinese media outlet that said the South China Sea issue should not be “that contentious,” and dialogue with other Southeast Asian claimant states should be the way to resolve differences.

“I have stated that we have potential for oil and gas in that area, and we have to pursue that area, but the Chinese want to discuss it, so we discuss it,” Anwar told the Chinese media company, according to Malaysian state news agency Bernama.

“I believe that there is no easy solution to that problem. As we think of each other as friends, we continue to have dialogue. This problem is not insurmountable.”


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