KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Wednesday (July 15) that China's coast guard and navy vessels have not been seen encroaching into Malaysian waters in the last 100 days, but a former foreign minister has rebutted this view.
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin claimed that the lack of intrusions was due to strengthened bilateral relations in the 100 days since he took over the Foreign Ministry as part of the four-month old Perikatan Nasional government, Free Malaysia Today (FMT) news site quoted him as saying.
"One area I've had to work on since helming Wisma Putra is to improve Malaysia's ties with China, India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. So, when we talk about South China Sea, of course, the relationship with China is important.
"The latest, in the 100 days of helming Wisma Putra, Chinese vessels have not been seen in our waters, so how did we manage this?
"This is between us and the Chinese leadership. My stand is very clear; we will not compromise on our sovereignty," he told a media conference in Parliament, as quoted by FMT.
A report by Malaysia's Auditor-General's Report issued on Tuesday said Chinese coast guard and navy ships intruded into Malaysian waters in the disputed South China Sea 89 times between 2016 and 2019.
The report also said that these vessels often remained in the area even after being turned away by the Malaysian navy.
The report comes amid escalating tension between the United States and China over Beijing's claims to most of the resource-rich South China Sea, which is also a major trade route, Reuters reported.
The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have their own claims that overlap in part with China's and, in some cases, with each other's.
But former foreign minister Anifah Aman has rebutted Mr Hishamuddin's view, saying the minister must more assertively defend Malaysia's sovereignty against continued Chinese encroachment.
Datuk Seri Anifah, who is from the same Umno party as Mr Hishammuddin, also criticised the foreign minister's claim that there has been no further encroachment in the South China Sea and said the latter was either "in denial or ignorant of the facts".
"I am appalled by the minister's statement. He is either in denial or ignorant of the fact. Worst, he is playing politics with Malaysia's maritime and strategic interests," he was quoted as saying by the Malay Mail on Thursday.
"It was only in April that a flotilla of Chinese enforcement vessels was sighted accompanying a Chinese survey vessel within Malaysia maritime areas.
"Further, I was reliably informed that Chinese coast guard vessels were sighted in the vicinity of Beting Patinggi Ali in May, June and July," Mr Anifah said.
Referring to Mr Anifah's criticism, Mr Hishammuddin on Thursday said there was only one incident when Chinese vessels had encroached into Malaysian waters since he took over. He was referring to the Chinese survey ship that entered Malaysian waters, accompanied by Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels in April and which he said stayed around till May.
The minister, in his comments earlier admitted that issues concerning the South China Sea were not just confined to the presence of Chinese and American vessels, but also involved territorial claims by fellow Asean nations.
"Even if you resolve the dotted line with China and all this posturing between these superpowers, you still need to resolve the overlapping claims with our neighbours," he said.
"But my personal fears are (concerning) incidents and accidents in the sea that can end up going to war. We have to avoid that.
"So military posturing is not going to help solve the problem and we need all Asean countries to agree on that.
"Right now, we seem to be on the same page and that's the only way we can face off with China and US (in the South China Sea)."