SINGAPORE - Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Saturday (June 4) urged Asean claimants to the South China Sea to resolve their differences first before blaming China or the United States for contributing to tensions over maritime disputes in the region.
"Even within Asean, there are duplicating claims [to the South China Sea]... we cannot just keep blaming China, or blaming US, until we get our own house in order," Mr Hishammuddin told reporters on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue on Saturday (June 4).
Earlier, at a plenary session on Managing Military Competition in Asia which also featured as speakers Japan's defence chief Gen Nakatani and India's Manohar Parrikar, Mr Hishammuddin had made another call for Asean unity.
“Someone told me a few days ago that the channels of engagement between China and US is in the region of about 109 channels... and out of these 109 not a single one involves Malaysia," he said.
“So it is important for small countries like us in Asean to ensure that whatever we do, and whatever that is decided by the superpowers do not leave us on the beach when the tide goes down.”
Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei have competing claims to the South China Sea, which hosts major global shipping routes and holds rich energy deposits and fish stocks.
China claims 80 per cent of the waterway and has been carrying out reclamation works in the sea to bolster its stake.
Manila has taken China's claim to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. A verdict is expected to be out some time in June but Beijing has said it will not recognise it.
The US, allies with the Philippines, insists China must abide by international laws. The US military has conducted several “freedom of navigation” operations in which the US sends a ship or plane to pass by a Chinese-claimed island in the South China Sea, much to China's displeasure.
The spat has dominated this year's Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-level annual forum of defence ministers, scholars and business executives organised by London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and held in Singapore.
Defence ministers of the US, Britain, Japan and India, in their speeches at plenary sessions on Saturday morning, urged China to rein in its actions in the South China Sea and respect international laws.
Malaysia, despite its claims to the SCS, has so far refrained from letting the issue affect its warming ties with China. Prime Minister Najib Razak had last month also called for Asean claimants to peacefully resolve the matter among themselves.
Mr Hishammuddin on Saturday also downplayed a recent incursion by Chinese fishing fleets off Malaysia's coast, saying that it could have occurred in Malaysia's exclusive economic zone and not its territorial waters.
"No. In the EEZ maybe, but not territorial waters," he said when asked whether there had been an intrusion.
Asked if Malaysia would boost its maritime capabilities in light of a recent intrusion by a large Chinese fishing fleet escorted by the Chinese coast guard, he said: “We will increase our maritime capability anyway... But we have to be realistic. No matter how big we boost our capacity - the navy - will it ever be as big as China's or the US's? No.
"So in that situation we'll have to base our needs on our immediate concerns and that is for the navy to decide as a stakeholder, not me."