KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) - Malaysia is confident it can reach an agreement with China to settle tensions in the South China Sea after its neighbours warned that incidents in the disputed waters had "eroded trust."
The country is "very hopeful" that a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the area will be completed within the three-year deadline or earlier, Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said in an interview with Bloomberg Television's Haslinda Amin.
"We are very hopeful that within three years or perhaps even earlier we can come up with a better understanding of things," Mr Saifuddin said in the interview in Bangkok after the Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting.
"We are also hopeful that the US and other superpowers will respect the CoC once its implemented."
Mr Saifuddin said he had not seen an increased presence of Chinese navy vessels in the disputed region, which includes a waterway that carries more than US$3 trillion (S$4.13 trillion) in trade each year.
His comments come after a joint communique from Asean aired concerns on the same day that China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi touted a preliminary draft of the Code of Conduct to end the decades-long conflict over the area.
Activities in the South China Sea, including land reclamation, "increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region," the 10-nation bloc of Southeast Asian countries said in the statement.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's stance on China has warmed ever since he stepped into power last year and quickly put Chinese-backed projects on hold for review.
He has since resumed some of the contracts and looked to Chinese companies from Huawei Technologies Co to SenseTime Group Ltd for cooperation in artificial intelligence and transport.
As trade tensions between the US and China escalate, Mr Saifuddin is concerned that possible US sanctions against Malaysia could prevent it from trading with China.
Vietnam is a cautionary tale, with the US imposing duties on steel imports from the country in July.
"We are a small player and we would like to trade with both the US and China," Mr Saifuddin said.
If Malaysia were to be punished for its trade surplus with the US, then "we just have to tell the US that you are just being very unfair and you are being a big bully," he added.