Malaysia Splits With Asean Claimants on China Sea Threat

Malaysia Splits With Other Asean Claimants Over China Sea Threat
The Chinese “can patrol every day, but if their intention is not to go to war” it is of less concern, said Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's defense minister. “I think we have enough level of trust that we will not be moved by day-to-day politics or emotions.” Photographer: Zhong Kuirun/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Malaysia differed with fellow Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea on the threat posed by China, dismissing concerns about patrols off its coast.

Malaysia is not worried about how often Chinese ships patrol the areas it claims in the waters, Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in an interview in Brunei yesterday. Chinese Navy ships in March visited James Shoal off Malaysia, near where Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Petroliam Nasional Bhd. have oil and gas operations.

“Just because you have enemies, doesn’t mean your enemies are my enemies,” Hishammuddin said on the sidelines of meetings with counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as the U.S. The Chinese “can patrol every day, but if their intention is not to go to war” it is of less concern, he said. “I think we have enough level of trust that we will not be moved by day-to-day politics or emotions.”

Malaysia is one of six claimants to land features in the South China Sea, an area where competition for gas and fish has led to boats being rammed and survey cables cut. The Philippines and Vietnam reject China’s map of the sea, first published in the 1940s, as a basis for joint exploration.

“Asean is divided on the South China Sea dispute because all the members have different interests in the South China Sea and their relationships with China also differ,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “Vietnam and the Philippines see the dispute as a major national security concern while Malaysia and Brunei always downplay tensions.”

U.S. Concerns

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met Hishammuddin today, alongside defense ministers from Asean, China, Japan and South Korea, for the second ADMM-Plus security summit. Hagel told ministers he was concerned by a rise in maritime incidents and tensions in the waters.

“Actions at sea to advance territorial claims do not strengthen any party’s legal claim,” Hagel said, according to remarks prepared for delivery. “Instead, they increase the risk of confrontation, undermine regional stability, and dim the prospects for diplomacy.”

The situation in the South China Sea is “stable,” said China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, after meeting his Thai counterpart Surapong Tovichakchaikul in Beijing today. “Such a stable situation does not come easily and we should dearly cherish it,” he said. “There is no real problem with freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, nor will there be a problem in the future.”

Defense Spending

An increase in defense spending in the region is “of serious concern to all of us,” Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters in Brunei today, adding he had raised the matter during talks with other ministers. Spending by Asian countries rose 75 percent from 2002 to 2012, compared with 12 percent for the same period in Europe, he said.

“The trend is likely to continue because Asian countries will modernize their militaries as their economies grow,” Ng said. He said Singapore had talked about the need to assure other countries in Asia that this process “will add stability to the region.”

Collaboration Option

Malaysia could consider collaborating on the development of oil and gas resources with China in the area, Hishammuddin said in the interview.

“Provided our friends in Asean know, those who have an interest in the region know, and if they want to object, I would like to know why?” Hishammuddin said. “If they’re just objecting for the sake of objecting, that doesn’t make sense.”

China National Offshore Oil Corp. estimates the South China Sea may hold about five times more undiscovered natural gas than the country’s current proved reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In June, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak called for parties to jointly develop resources to avoid conflict and prevent “extra-regional states” from becoming involved.

Najib cited a joint development zone in waters claimed by Thailand and Malaysia as a precedent that could be applied in the South China Sea. China has agreed to talks on a code of conduct for the area, with discussions to begin in September.

Code of Conduct

“China is somewhat reluctant to reach a consensus on the code of conduct with Asean members, if the area covered by the code of conduct is in certain portions of the South China Sea claimed by China,” said Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Taiwan.

China still calls for disputes to be handled directly by the countries in involved, Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said in Brunei today, speaking through a translator.

China opposes any effort to internationalize, “escalate or complicate the disputes,” Chang said. “These disputes should not and will not undermine the overall relationship between China and Asean.”

Hagel will visit Vietnam next year at the invitation of Vietnam’s defense minister, said a senior U.S. defense official who can’t be named according to government policy. Hagel also met his counterpart from Myanmar for talks in Brunei yesterday, the first meeting of top defense figures from the two countries in 20 years, the official said.

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