Malaysia wants to continue occupying its South China Sea islands

The Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. Malaysia has conflicting claims with China, which has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
The Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. Malaysia has conflicting claims with China, which has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia wants to continue occupying the islands it has called its own in the South China Sea, said Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

He told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) in an interview that was published on Tuesday that Malaysia wants to retain these islands and is not interested in occupying any others.

"China claims the South China Sea is theirs, but those islands have always been regarded as ours for a long time. So, we want to retain them," Tun Dr Mahathir said, as quoted by SCMP. "There are certain rocks which we have developed into islands. And we hope that we will stay on those islands because it is a part of our keeping the sea safe from pirates and others."

Malaysia has conflicting claims with China, which has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which about US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) worth of global trade passes through every year.

Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims in the area. Last month, China's airforce landed bombers on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea as part of a training exercise, triggering concern in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Tensions escalated further when the United States sent warships to the area as part of "freedom of navigation" exercises.

Dr Mahathir said one way to keep the peace in the disputed South China Sea was for the waters to be "patrolled by small boats" rather than warships. The small boats, he told SCMP, should be "equipped to deal with pirates, not to fight another war".

"I think there should not be too many warships. Warships create tension," he said. "Someday, somebody might make some mistakes and there will be a fight, some ships will be lost, and there might be a war. We don't want that."

He also said Asean countries were a natural choice for these patrols because "the whole sea is surrounded by Asean countries".

"But if China wants to participate with small boats, they are welcome. Anybody, even the US, if they want to participate, but don't bring battleships here," he told SCMP.

Dr Mahathir cited the narrow Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia as an example of a free waterway.

"We have never tried to stop ships from passing through... Although between Malaysia and Indonesia, we could have named this Strait of Malacca the 'Malaysia-Indonesia Sea', we didn't," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2018, with the headline 'Malaysia wants to continue occupying its South China Sea islands'. Print Edition | Subscribe