PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysia wants to continue occupying the islands it has called its own in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, said Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Tun Dr Mahathir told the South China Morning Post in an interview published on Tuesday (June 19) 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," Dr Mahathir told the Hong Kong publication.
"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 who has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which about US$5 trillion (S$7 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 suggested that 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 says, 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 said.
When asked who should be involved in these patrols, Dr Mahathir said countries from Asean were a natural choice 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 said.
Dr Mahathir said that it would be to China's benefit to keep the waters open.
"Because then, you will have more trade," he said.
"You can't expect all the goods going to China to change into Chinese ships before entering the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea.
"Goods from Europe and America, they will pass through the Strait of Malacca, and they should be free to pass through the Strait of Malacca, and then go to the South China Sea to reach China," said Dr Mahathir.
He 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. They are welcomed. Although between Malaysia and Indonesia, we could have named this Strait of Malacca the 'Malaysia-Indonesia Sea', we didn't," he said.
"We want it to be open because it's good for trade. The South China Sea also is good for trading nations," added Dr Mahathir.