Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Malaysia has hardened its diplomatic position on the disputed South China Sea, questioning China’s “nine-dash line” claim over the entire sea lane that has already been previously declared with “no legal basis” by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague.
Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs Saifuddin Abdullah said late on Friday that Kuala Lumpur has the “sovereign right to claim whatever that is there that is within our waters”.
“For China to claim that the whole of South China Sea belongs to China, I think that is ridiculous,” Saifuddin said in response to an Al Jazeera question about Malaysia’s decision last week to take its case to the United Nations.
“It is a claim that we have made, and we will defend our claim. But of course, having said that, anyone can challenge and dispute, which is not something unusual.”
On December 12, Malaysia formally filed a submission seeking clarity on the limits of its continental shelf beyond the 322 kilometre (200 nautical miles) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the disputed body of water claimed by several countries in the Southeast Asian region.
The move has angered China, which claims “historic rights” over all of South China Sea. It has also blamed the United States for raising tensions in the area.
In response, the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral John Aquilino accused China of “bullying” its Southeast Asian neighbours.
Malaysia and China are both signatories to the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which codifies the rights and responsibilities of independent states’ use of the oceans.
Under UNCLOS, coastal states like Malaysia are entitled to an EEZ. Beyond that waters are considered the high seas, common to all nations. UNCLOS also defines rules in the case of overlapping EEZs.
It was on this basis that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected in 2016 China’s claims to almost the entire sea, through which an estimated $3 trillion of trade pass each year.
China, however, rejects the ruling in The Hague, and since then has expanded its presence in the region, building artificial islands with runways and installing an advanced missile system.
ASEAN Code of Conduct
Beijing has insisted on the application of its “nine-dash line” demarcation, which claims that the littoral countries are only entitled to the seas and other resources nine miles from their shore.
Aside from the Philippines and Malaysia, China’s claim is also being questioned by Vietnam. Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the South China Sea.
Asked whether Malaysia’s latest diplomatic move would strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) push for a unified “Code of Conduct” in the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Saifuddin replied, “It would be debated for sure.”
It was unclear what prompted Malaysia to file a formal submission this month.
In August, Saifuddin had said that he was “very hopeful” that ASEAN and China can reach an agreement within the three-year deadline or earlier, to help ease the tensions, Bloomberg News reported him as saying.
In September, Saifuddin also met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to set up a “bilateral consultation mechanism for maritime issues”. The agreement was dubbed “a new platform for dialogue and cooperation”.
China has tried to keep discussions over the sea on a bilateral basis rather than negotiating with ASEAN as a group.
In October, Saifuddin told members of Parliament that Malaysia should be “upgraded” in order to “better manage our waters should there be a conflict between major powers in the South China Sea.”
For the last 10 years, China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner.
In 2018, its trade was estimated to be at about $76.6bn, representing 16.7 percent of Malaysia’s total trade, according to Malaysia’s trade ministry.