Malaysian warships are smaller than Chinese Coast Guard vessels present off Sarawak, the country’s top diplomat said Thursday, underlining the Southeast Asian nation’s need to upgrade its naval capability amid competition among great powers in the South China Sea.
Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah made the statement during a question-and-answer session in parliament a day after the U.S. Navy sailed a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier off the coast of Malaysia.
“We can make maps, we can demand for certain territory, but to answer the question, we need to enhance our assets to allow us to protect our coasts especially in facing the super powers in the South China Sea,” Saifuddin said referring to China and the United States.
He said Malaysia’s position on the South China Sea is clear and consistent.
“To ensure regional peace and stability, Malaysia is committed to ensure everyone respects international law, resolves any dispute and avoids the use of force or threats of violence,” Saifuddin said, according to a transcript of the session.
Moving forward, the government is monitoring for developments that could cause tension between the superpowers, he said.
China claims most of the South China Sea and has built military outposts on small islands and atolls, angering other countries with overlapping claims to the waters, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Malaysia, along with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have asked China and the U.S. to refrain from increasing military presence in the region.
But the United States has been sending warships and conducting training exercises with longtime military allies in the region, such as Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.
“Last year, Chinese and American warships in international waters got as close as 50 kilometers (31 miles). To a big warship, a distance below 50 kilometers is not a small matter,” Saifuddin said.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg quoted U.S. Navy Rear Adm, George Wikoff as saying he had been impressed with the professionalism of China’s navy. He made the statement aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, which was headed for Singapore as part of what Washington describes as freedom of navigation exercises.
“They remain respectful in accordance with what we anticipate a professional would do,” Wikoff told the news service, referring to China. “We respond or initiate in kind when we believe there is a situation.”
In August, the state-run news service Bernama also quoted Saifuddin as saying that ASEAN has expressed concern over rising tensions in the South China Sea, adding that the 10-nation regional bloc had stressed the importance of non-militarization.
“We should lessen the presence of warships in the disputed waters to ensure peace and stability, safety and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” he said at the time. “It is a free passage but when there are too many, we are worried.”
Saifuddin’s statement on Thursday came on the same day the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA) finished its annual 17-day training Exercise Bersama Lima in Singapore. The five powers – Malaysia, Australia, Britain, New Zealand and Singapore – sent seven ships, 48 aircraft, one submarine, five ground-based air defense units and five army platoons to participate in land, sea and air training.
The training began in 1971 and alternates annually between Malaysia and Singapore.
During closing ceremonies, Singapore Lt. Gen. Melvyn Ong emphasized the importance of FPDA exercises in enhancing mutual trust and cooperation.
“This ensures that the FPDA continues to be relevant. And it must be so, in enhancing peace and security in the region,” he said.