KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said Wednesday that Malaysia's new government will adopt a firmer stand in tackling a decades-old territorial row in the South China Sea amid China's aggressive expansion in the disputed area.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who won a stunning electoral victory in May, has said warships should be removed from the South China Sea.
Saifuddin said that Mahathir was "sending a signal that we want to be more firm, more serious" in handling the maritime dispute.
The 2002 declaration of conduct by claimants in the South China Sea that set loose guidelines for behavior in the disputed waters has "no fangs," and China's continued militarization of the area has raised concern and could potentially escalate regional tensions, he told Parliament.
China has sent big coast guard vessels that resemble warships to the potentially energy rich territory and has caused uneasiness among its neighbors, he said.
Malaysia's previous government rarely criticizes China, even though Chinese coast guard ships have sailed near Malaysia's waters. In the Spratly island chain, China has constructed seven man-made islands and equipped them with runways, hangers, radar and missile stations, further cementing its vast territorial claims in the busy waterway.
Saifuddin said Southeast Asian foreign ministers meeting in Singapore next week will seek to accelerate negotiations for a new code of conduct to ensure peace in the South China Sea, which is claimed by China almost in its entirety. Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan all dispute Beijing's holdings.
All parties should exercise self-restraint and any actions must be based on international law, Saifuddin said.
China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations earlier this year began negotiations on the new code of conduct. However, officials have warned it could take a long time, with no agreement on whether the pact will be legally binding, raising doubts over its effectiveness.
Mahathir, who previously led Malaysia for 22 years until 2003, has sought to reduce China's economic influence by reassessing lopsided Chinese investment since taking power for a second stint. The government recently suspended work on a multi-billion-dollar rail link that is central to China's Belt and Road initiative, and two gas pipeline projects to renegotiate for better terms.
Analysts however, say Mahathir's more assertive stance on the South China Sea is unlikely to amount to a challenge to Beijing, which is Malaysia's top trading partner.