Malaysia stands by its request to extend its boundary farther into the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told reporters Friday, acknowledging Chinese opposition to the move and the potential for the case to lead to arbitration before the United Nations.
The government submitted a claim to the U.N. on Dec. 12 to increase Malaysia’s continental shelf beyond the standard 200 nautical miles off the northernmost point of Malaysian Borneo, according to submission documents viewed by BenarNews. In 2009, Malaysia and Vietnam jointly petitioned the U.N. to extend their boundaries into the South China Sea, in an area between their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
“We expected China to object, but it is our claim and we will maintain our claim,” Saifuddin told reporters in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital.
“One, there will always be dispute[s], just like there are certain areas in the South China Sea where there will always be dispute[s]. Second, the end game, which rarely happens, you go for arbitration.”
Shortly after Malaysia filed submission documents last month under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China protested with the same language it used since as early as 2016 to state its case to the United Nations.
“China has internal waters, territorial sea and a contiguous zone based on its Nanhai Zhudao,” the Chinese mission said in a note to the U.N., referring to its islands in the South China Sea.
“China has an exclusive economic zone and continental shelf,” the note said, according to the South China Morning Post. “China has historic rights in the South China Sea.”
The statement mirrors language in a Chinese government statement on its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea published on July 12, 2016.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, a vital waterway for international shipping and trade, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have their own overlapping claims to portions of the disputed waters.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines over China, saying there was no legal basis for Beijing to claim historical rights in the sea region.
On Dec. 20, Saifuddin questioned China’s claim to nearly all of the sea.
“It is our sovereign right to claim whatever is there within our waters and which is not claimed by others,” he said at the time. “For China that the whole of the South China Sea belongs to them, I think that is ridiculous.”
On Friday, a reporter asked Saifuddin whether the Malaysian government feared any retaliation from China, such as through sanctions.
“If we fear that, we wouldn’t submit our claim,” he responded.
The Malaysian move came months after Saifuddin traveled to Beijing where he and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, agreed to establish a “bilateral consultative mechanism” to resolve differences in the South China Sea. During the September 2019 visit, Saifuddin said he would co-chair a joint dialogue panel with Wang, who said the panel would promote maritime cooperation and regional stability.
Meanwhile, an analyst linked to a Japanese university told Voice of America that Kuala Lumpur could be seeking to get more aid from Beijing while expanding its South China Sea foothold.
“They’re looking at all this really hard-core pressure against the Chinese and seeing it’s a potential strategic window to probably exploit more financial aid, more development aid from China,” said Stephen Nagy, senior associate politics and international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.
“They’re exerting the pressure at the right time, understanding it’s in line with the other states in the region rather than being an outlier,” he told VOA, which pointed out that rivals of China were resisting its expansion in the region and, in some cases, were receiving military aid from the United States.