Malaysia's armed forces chief criticised China's construction work on islands in the South China Sea as "unwarranted provocation" at a security forum, a rare public rebuke in the light of the country's typically mild stance on overlapping territorial claims in the disputed waters.
"I would like to address the issue of the unwarranted provocation by the Chinese over the construction on the garrisoned islands of the South China Sea," General Zulkefli Mohd Zin told participants on the last day of the three-day Xiangshan Forum in Beijing yesterday.
The annual forum is billed as China's version of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting of defence ministers in Singapore.
Gen Zulkefli said that while China has given assurances that its building work is for civilian purposes and maritime research, and to facilitate safe navigation, time will tell as to what Beijing's intentions are.
China claims up to 90 per cent of the South China Sea, also claimed in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
While Malaysia has generally taken a milder stance in the territorial spat compared with Vietnam and the Philippines, two Chinese naval exercises in quick succession around James Shoal, which lies in Malaysia's exclusive economic zone, reportedly prompted it to change its approach last year.
Beijing's reclamation works and the building of air strips and lighthouses on disputed isles have been alarming the United States and its allies.
Experts say that two lighthouses in the disputed Spratly Islands that Beijing lit up this month, for instance, represent a shrewd move to boost Chinese claims in the waters.
References to the lighthouses are likely to find their way into global shipping charts and registers and foreign navies' logbooks. That will help China to potentially build a long-term legal picture of effective occupation, a Reuters article said.
The lighthouses reinforce Beijing's continued strategy of gradually "changing the facts on the water", Dr Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies, was cited by the news agency as saying.
Gen Zulkefli's comments contrasted with the more tepid remarks by Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein a day earlier, when he stressed the need for moderation.
"A more balanced and moderate approach, not only in our dealings with each other but in how we manage ourselves, can prevent many of the problems we face today," he said, adding that a binding code of conduct is the best way to govern competing territorial claims.
Separately, Vietnam's Defence Minister, General Phung Quang Thanh, said at an informal China- Asean defence ministers' meeting last Friday that long-term, sustainable, inclusive, equal and mutually beneficial cooperation with China is the desire of Asean members.
As for its maritime dispute with China, both states should work together to seek a solution, he said.