KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - It was just a six-paragraph statement issued by the Defence Ministry.
It was the outcome of a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington DC between United States Defence Secretary James Mattis and his Malaysian counterpart Mohamad Sabu.
After one reading, most would dismiss it as a discussion on defence and security issues.
But the second paragraph of the Mindef statement issued on Tuesday (Sept 25) and reported by several local media has caught the attention of Malaysian officials.
The line in the statement issued by Mindef reads: “The discussion among others touched on the issue of peace in the South China Sea where Malaysia will continue its stance of neutrality.”
Several questions came to mind. When is Malaysia neutral on South China Sea? Does Malaysia now have a new policy on its maritime claims in the South China Sea?
Is Malaysia no more a claimant state?
If we are still one, then Malaysia cannot afford to be neutral.
It is a national position which Malaysia has taken for as long as one can remember – dating back to the first time Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad served as the Prime Minister.
This position has consistently been upheld by successive administrations of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
Malaysia’s position on the South China Sea issue is clear and consistent. We are a claimant state and Malaysia takes the position that all claims must be based and resolved in accordance with international law, in particular the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) on the overlapping claims.
When contacted, several officials insisted that the Mindef statement did not reflect the true picture of Malaysia’s claim in the area.
“I don’t recall any discussion on Malaysia changing its position on claims in South China Sea. In addition, the code of conduct (CoC) negotiation is still ongoing between Asean and China,” said an official.
The official was referring to the Asean and China negotiations on a binding code to address numerous issues faced by claimant parties since 2002.
The proposed code seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DoC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which commits to following the Unclos, ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight, and refraining from the action of inhabiting the presently uninhabited island, reefs, shoals, cays and other features.
The area, which has rich fishing grounds along with oil and gas deposits, is claimed by four Asean countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. China and Taiwan are the two non-Asean claimant parties.
In August this year, Asean and China agreed on a draft CoC that will lay the foundation for negotiations over the disputed maritime area.
Negotiations on the code is under the purview of the Foreign Ministry.
While these negotiations are taking place, China continues to aggressively make its presence felt with militarisation activities in the region which Beijing says are being done peacefully.
Lately, more countries including Britain, Japan and the United States have found common cause in countering growing Chinese influence in the region that they worry could put key commercial sea lanes linking Asia with Europe, the United States and elsewhere under Beijing’s sway.
With more countries getting involved in the South China Sea area, it came as a surprise that Mindef decided to issue a statement on Malaysia’s “stance of neutrality” after the meeting between Mohamad and Mattis.
It is understood the Foreign Ministry is seeking a clarification from Mindef on this “change” of the national position.
The statement which used the word neutrality can be interpreted in many different ways, according to an official.
“For a layman when we say we are neutral on South China Sea, it means that we are not a claimant state and we are showing no interest at all on this.
“Perhaps the statement did not give a clear indication on what actually transpired at the Pentagon meeting,” he said.
It also points to one thing. There was lack of consultation among the ministries and agencies involved in this issue.
This means these ministries are working in silos instead of working and coordinating with each other especially on issues affecting national policies and positions.
Perhaps, there is also a lack of understanding among Mindef personnel on how sensitive this issue is.
“This is a national position. How can you come up with a statement using that line? That is puzzling and dangerous.
“China for sure is making notes from this statement on Malaysia’s stance and we will be queried by them,” said an official.
Mindef perhaps needs to understand some foreign policy dimension when dealing in geo-political and geo-economic issues.
The ministry must be made fully aware whatever they say whether verbally or in writing, especially touching on the government’s positions, will have consequences if they are not careful.
Mindef can start by reading the statement issued by the US Defence Department after the Pentagon meeting.
Just a three paragraph statement including one line on working more closely on maritime security as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Simple and straight to the point without revealing too much.
The writer is Deputy Executive Editor of The Star. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.