*This article is originally published on The Star, dated 25 September 2022.
SINGAPORE/KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 25: Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) member states with claims in the South China Sea (SCS) must be vigilant against moves by China or such superpowers to dominate the area according to an analyst.
Failing to defend their interests could see the erosion of their food security, energy interests and ability to navigate the waters of their respective exclusive economic zones, founding director of Bait Al Amanah Abdul Razak Ahmad warned.
“The SCS remains a critical avenue in the big power rivalry.
"The US-led Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at countering China’s assertiveness in the region has exacerbated tensions. The constant piling of military assets in the SCS is bound to have a profound effect. Also tensions in the Taiwan Strait will eventually spill into areas which China claims under its belief in the nine-dash line,” he said.
Abdul Razak urged the government to put Malaysia at the forefront in leading other Asean members to expedite the SCS Code of Conduct (COC) to relieve the building tensions in the region which he said ould be the key foundation of resolving the dispute.
“Although (Chinese Foreign Minister) Wang Yi has reiterated China’s commitment to the SCS Code of Conduct, Asean must be the one in the driver’s seat of the agenda as four claimant states in the region are the members.
“Thus, it is not just an issue for four separate nations, but rather for ASEAN as a whole in dealing with growing tensions in the SCS.
"Asean must relentlessly put forth the agenda of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) 1982 as the primary medium of deliberation for all parties involved in the overlapping claims.
"The inclusion of the UNCLOS agenda in every Asean and Asean-led regional architecture is the only way forward in resolving current and future SCS disputes,” he explained.
The COC is intended to reduce the risk of conflict in the South China Sea in the disputed waterway but China has resisted efforts at coming to a binding agreement, while building military facilities on man-made islands in the region, much to the consternation of Asean states.
While acknowledging that a non-confrontational approach is important, Abdul Razak said that Malaysia must strengthen its defensive capabilities in tandem with diplomatic efforts and negotiations to ensure it would have the means of enforcing its claims in the area.
“A non-confrontational response to China on the SCS will remain unchanged as we seek to resolve this matter via diplomatic means.
"Therefore, it is clear that political will is needed for Malaysia to amend the current SCS Policy to protect its national interests and territorial integrity,” he said.
“Also the current impasse on Malaysia's military assets must be put in order and rectified. Otherwise, such incidents would be detrimental to our morale and capability in safeguarding our territory and assets in the SCS.
"Bolstering Royal Malaysian Air Force and Royal Malaysian Navy assets is the only way forward for our sovereignty and territorial integrity to be defended considering the reality that is currently emerging in the SCS,” he added
Parts of the SCS are claimed by Brunei, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia and are geopolitically located in the Indo-Pacific region but China claims the whole area for itself as part of its nine-dash line, which underpins its claim of up to 90 per cent of the disputed waters. - Agencies