Malaysia to hold talks with Australia on South China Sea

Efforts to counter China's military build-up even as Canberra strengthens US alliance

KUALA LUMPUR/CANBERRA • Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he will meet his Australian counterpart Marise Payne next week to discuss China's military build-up in the disputed South China Sea and hold talks with fellow claimants, the Philippines and Vietnam.

China claims most of the energy-rich waters through which about US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

Beijing is feeling public pressure at home to show it can protect its claims to the waters after the United States began conducting "freedom of navigation" operations near islands where China has been carrying out controversial reclamation work and stationing advanced weapons.

Mr Hishammuddin said his talks with Mrs Payne are to ensure efforts are made to "hold China to their promise of not placing military assets in the area".

"If the reports we've received from various sources regarding the build-up and placement of military assets in the Spratlys are true - this forces us in a pushback against China," said Mr Hishammuddin.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said last September that China had no intention to militarise its outposts in the Spratly Islands.

FORCED PUSHBACK

If the reports we've received from various sources regarding the build-up and placement of military assets in the Spratlys are true - this forces us in a pushback against China.

MALAYSIAN DEFENCE MINISTER HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, on talks over China's actions in the South China Sea

US national intelligence director James Clapper said China's land reclamation and construction work on the islands had established infrastructure needed "to project military capabilities in the South China Sea beyond that which is required for point defence of its outposts".

The 10-member Asean said last month it was "seriously concerned" over developments in the disputed waters, which includes recent missile and fighter jet deployments by China in the Paracel island chain.

Mr Hishammuddin said he would also meet the authorities in Vietnam and the Philippines as Malaysia "cannot act alone in stopping the aggressive actions" if reports on China's military expansion were true.

"We need the support of other Asean countries, and I will continue to (seek that support)," said Mr Hishammuddin. "This is important for us to maintain balance, and to curb the actions by superpowers, whether it is China or the United States."

Meanwhile, Royal Australian Air Force Chief Leo Davies said a growing US military presence in Australia for routine exercises demonstrates the strategic alliance between the two countries in the face of rising tensions in the South China Sea.

Speaking to reporters in Canberra, Air Marshal Davies said Australia provides an opportunity for the US to conduct long-range exercises in its remote northern regions.

Australia is seen as a partner in President Barack Obama's economic and military re-balance to Asia, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last month echoing US calls for China to refrain from militarising reefs it has reclaimed in the South China Sea.

The strengthening of the alliance comes as Australia ramps up military spending, with the defence budget to surge from A$32.4 billion (S$33.6 billion) in 2016-17 to A$58.7 billion in 2025-26.

Australia has also held talks with regional countries, including Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, to ensure that "freedom of navigation" exercises in the South China Sea are maintained, Air Marshal Davies said.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'Malaysia to hold talks with Australia on South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe