Asean ministers will discuss a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea next week amid concerns over China's increasing militarisation in the area, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said yesterday.
He said the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) that was signed in 2002 by China and Asean does not appear to have "fangs".
The construction of military bases and the deployment of military assets by Beijing on its man-made islands in the South China Sea have created unease among Asean countries, he told Parliament in response to several questions on Malaysia's stance towards China's moves and measures to protect the nation's sovereignty.
Beijing has constructed several artificial islands near the Spratly islands and equipped them with airstrips and missile stations, among others.
China also deploys coast guard ships resembling warships in the strategic waterway, a move that has added to jitters in the region, said Mr Saifuddin.
The United States has several times sent warships to the area as part of its "freedom of navigation" exercises. Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said that warships should not be allowed to pass through the South China Sea.
"All parties need to avoid actions that can create tensions and are provocative, practise self-restraint and avoid military actions," said Mr Saifuddin.
Besides China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines also claim parts of the South China Sea.
Mr Saifuddin was also asked if Malaysia would apply to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to claim ownership of the country's Layang Layang Island, near the Spratlys, which is among a group of 600 islands and reefs claimed by several countries.
Mr Saifuddin replied that Malaysia's move now was to strengthen ways in which to "control China's behaviour in the area", by setting up the COC as soon as possible.
The COC is on the table at the Asean Foreign Ministers' meeting in Singapore next week, he said, adding that the DOC signed in 2002 "appeared to have no fangs".
"I am not saying the COC has fangs but we will try to resolve it through this process and if once we have the COC, (China) is still aggressive, we may have to" file a claim to the ICJ on Layang Layang Island, he said.
The Asean member nations and China in May completed a draft framework for the COC.
Mr Saifuddin said the Malaysian authorities would continue to conduct patrols and enforcement in the country's maritime areas.
"We will not compromise on matters which can jeopardise the country's sovereignty," he said.
In 1996, during the 29th Asean Ministerial Meeting in Jakarta, regional members called for a legally binding COC in the South China Sea that will "lay the foundation for long-term stability in the area and foster understanding among claimant countries".
In 2002, China and Asean signed the DOC in the South China Sea, a declaratory prelude to a legally binding final agreement. Among other things, the non-binding DOC discourages signatories from aggressive actions and bars construction of new structures in the contested region that could spark armed conflicts.