Malaysia Rebukes China Over South China Sea Maritime Claims

Malaysia protests to the United Nations . . .

In a submission to the United Nations Secretary General on July 29, Malaysia openly rejected China’s historical maritime claims to much of the South China Sea, stating that they have no basis under international law. While other claimants, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have been more vocal in rejecting China’s actions and maritime claims, the rebuke is an unusual move for Malaysia. The Southeast Asian country had previously avoided openly criticizing China, preferring to interact on the issue bilaterally and by reiterating Malaysia’s focus on ensuring the maritime area remained open for trade. China is Malaysia’s main trading partner and its primary source of tourists.

The complexity of the South China Sea issue . . .

The South China Sea is the site of several complex territorial and maritime disputes that have been the primary source of tensions in the region. While China claims most of the maritime area, other Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei have competing and overlapping claims to the disputed area, posing a threat to ASEAN’s unity. China has been more aggressive in the South China Sea recently, which led to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo releasing an official statement on July 13 rejecting China’s maritime claims as unlawful, denouncing China’s bullying tactics, and offering support to countries that recognize that China has violated their legal territorial claims.

Will Malaysia harden its stance on China?

Speaking in parliament last week, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that, in his country’s efforts to resolve disputes over the South China Sea, Malaysia must avoid being “dragged and trapped” in the increasingly conflictual relationship between the U.S. and China. Instead, he said that Malaysia would rather work with ASEAN and China to conclude a ‘Code of Conduct’ for the South China Sea. But while Malaysia will undoubtedly proceed with caution, the note sent to the United Nations signals that newly-nominated Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin may adopt a tougher line on China than his predecessor Najib Razak.