Kuala Lumpur and Beijing will establish a bilateral consultative mechanism to resolve differences on the South China Sea, the two nations’ top diplomats said Thursday.
The announcement came less than a month after the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard launched joint drills with the Malaysian navy amid regional concerns over Beijing’s growing presence in the disputed sea region.
“We are agreeable to the formation of the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told a joint news conference after he met with Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi in Beijing.
“I think this is one of the important outcomes of the meeting today,” he said.
Saifuddin, who was on an official visit to China until Friday, said officials from both sides “will be discussing the details.”
He noted that he would co-chair the joint dialogue panel with Wang, who was also quoted by Malaysia’s state news agency Bernama as saying that tensions in the sea region had subsided.
“We will use the dialogue platform to differentiate and promote maritime cooperation and regional stability in the South China Sea,” Wang told reporters, referring to the consultative mechanism.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea. Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam also have overlapping territorial claims to the sea region, where trillions of dollars in global trade passes through annually.
Beijing’s recent naval deployments in the strategic waterway, coupled with intelligence reports that it has built numerous military installations with advanced ballistic-missile capabilities on reclaimed islands under its control, have raised “serious concerns” for its smaller neighbors, Malaysian and Vietnamese officials said in a joint statement from Hanoi last month.
China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been negotiating a “code of conduct,” a pact aimed at averting aggressive acts by claimant states in the sea’s disputed territories.
“On the COC, we are on the same page,” Saifuddin told reporters, referring to the code of conduct. “I am sure that this is something that we can realize together.
In August, Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu told Reuters that his country had regularly tracked Chinese naval and coast guard vessels entering Malaysia’s territorial waters.
Washington also has expressed concern over reports that Beijing was hampering oil and gas activities of other claimant nations in the contested waterway.
In August, the U.S. 7th Fleet said in a news release that its naval drills with Malaysia also involved the first at-sea joint training between the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard.