Malaysia to allow PLA navy use of strategic port

Offer a bid to keep a neutral stance as tensions simmer over territorial disputes

TAN SRI ABDUL AZIZ JAAFAR , on the decision to offer China's navy the use of Kota Kinabalu's port

Malaysia has agreed to allow the Chinese navy the use of the strategic port of Kota Kinabalu on north-east Borneo, close to the disputed Spratly Islands, despite its own reservations about Beijing's activities in the South China Sea.

China has yet to indicate when it might begin docking there.

Kuala Lumpur made the offer in order to maintain a neutral position as tensions simmer over territorial disputes in the resource-rich waters, through which US$5 trillion (S$7.1 trillion) of the world's trade passes each year.

The agreement between the People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy and its Malaysian counterpart, struck on Nov 10, comes just weeks after a United States warship stopped at Kota Kinabalu after conducting a patrol just 12 nautical miles off the Subi Reef.

The reef was one of several sites where China has conducted reclamation and building works despite the overlapping territorial claims that it has with several South-east Asian countries as well as Taiwan in the area.

The patrol provoked fury from Beijing, while US President Barack Obama has himself reportedly chided Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the 99-year lease of Darwin port to a Chinese company that has been linked to the PLA.

China and the US have increasingly come up against each other in the region as Beijing flexes its muscles over its claims in the South China Sea and Washington is intent on showing it is the primary power in the region. The US had sailed its navy ship close to Subi Reef to demonstrate the freedom of navigation of the area and said it would continue to conduct such air and naval patrols.

Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar, who was until last Wednesday the Malaysian navy chief, told The Sunday Times that the PLA navy "has noted the offer, but no indication yet" has been given on when it may begin to dock at Kota Kinabalu. "(It was a) similar offer as extended to the USN to show we don't take sides," he added, using the acronym for the US Navy.

According to state news agency Bernama, Malaysia offered the use of the port as a stopover to strengthen defence ties between the two countries.

Mr Abdul Aziz was quoted as saying that the port has also received visits from US and French vessels in the past and that enhanced defence relations with China would help overcome issues relating to overlapping border claims.

Much of Asean diplomacy over the past few years has been encumbered by territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as evidenced by the scrapping of two joint statements after ministerial meetings since 2012, the only times this has happened in the regional bloc's nearly five-decade-long history.

The most recent was at the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting earlier this month, which was held shortly after the US Navy's patrol near Subi Reef.

Director of foreign policy and security studies at Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies Elina Noor told The Sunday Times that Malaysia does not want "to be seen as welcoming to only any one party".

She added that, given the existing comprehensive defence relations with China, the stopover offer was not a huge departure from current policy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2015, with the headline Malaysia to allow PLA navy use of strategic port. Subscribe