Malaysia has opened up in the South China Sea (SCS) conflict, showing growing interest in the defence of its territorial integrity which is taken for granted by China.

On Oct 17, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah says Kuala Lumpur’s ability to prevent other countries encroaching on its waters is lacking, and military upgrades are needed.

He says Malaysia has to prepare for possible conflicts in the disputed seas.

Analysts have said Malaysia should not allow China a free hand in the SCS, particularly in the disputed waters and shoals that Malaysia believes is part of its territory.

They are also saying Malaysia has no choice but to beef up its military capability in the seas, to tackle Beijing’s show of ‘ownership’ on Luconia shoals.

Besides Malaysia, Vietnam has also been raising concerns about its territorial integrity —which is under attack from Beijing’s vessels.

Vietnam’s views and efforts to resolve the SCS issue is recognised and well appreciated by other countries, especially in the full and effective implementation of the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) and towards building a result-oriented, effective Code of Conduct (COC) in accordance with international law.

Based on the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, China’s attempt to use military might to overturn the legal rights given to the other countries threatens international peace and security. The PCA ruling under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention is a clear and binding ruling on China’s claims vis-à-vis the Philippines in the SCS. China’s dismissed the ruling as “nothing more than a piece of waste paper”. However, it is imperative that all the other signatory countries defend the UNCLOS from predatory behaviour of any country.

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To enforce the PCA ruling in the SCS, Vietnam wants a resolution of the dispute with a pact with teeth, not with more politics after years of dependence on a toothless diplomatic pact that has failed to reduce tensions, called the DOC.

For that matter, Vietnam wants the COC to bind all contracting states in full with no reservation. It also wants signatory states to ratify the code under their respective internal procedures.


With both Malaysia and Vietnam finding a solution to their territorial integrity in the SCS and a way to end China’s bullying tactics over their territories and resources, it is perhaps time for both countries to push the ASEAN over a conclusion of the COC.

Both Putrajaya and Hanoi should push for the ASEAN to call for the completion of negotiations on the COC to give the association and its member countries an effective and intrinsic tool that will provide a check and balance in the SCS.

The ASEAN-China joint working group on implementing the DOC met in May. They were to look into the situation on the SCS, review the implementation of the DOC and continue negotiations on the COC.

According to Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, the first draft of COC has been completed. The Filipino top diplomat at a speaking engagement in the Asia Society Policy Institute on 26th September said that China has “softened its insistence on controversial provisions” excluding external military presence in the strategic waters.

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Earlier reports, citing a draft document between China and ASEAN member-states, said Beijing proposed the creation of a notification mechanism on military activities whenever necessary.

Although the reported text did not specifically mention “Western” military, the said provision sought the exclusion of countries outside the region “unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”

The COC is intended mostly as a managing tool for the disputes which says ‘we agree that we have a dispute but we all agree not to use force.”

But while some countries wants a stronger wording in the COC to bring China to stop ‘conquering’ more areas and assimilating its forced ‘ownership’ in the disputed seas, others do not want the COC to supplant the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) dispute settlement mechanism.

International condemnation

While China is carrying out its bullying in the seas, there has been an international outcry on the methods used by China. Beijing, international analysts and governments say, cannot do as if the SCS is its territory.

They raised several violations made by the Chinese to the UNCLOS and the basic fact that the country is ignoring all international norms, twisting facts and imposing itself in the seas.

An EU spokesperson says, “Unilateral actions during the past weeks in the SCS have resulted in mounting tensions and a deterioration of the maritime security environment which represents a serious threat to the peaceful economic development of the region.

The International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) says the recent provocative escalations of tensions in the SCS negatively affect the maritime security and safety in the region.

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The US, India, the UK, Germany, France, Australia, among others have expressed concerns over China`s bullying tactics.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during his visit to Hanoi on August 22-24 showed concern about land reclamation and militarization of disputed territories in the SCS.


As a result of the international outcry and the fact that Malaysia is now gearing for action against violations of its territorial integrity in the seas, it is time for both Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi to work for a unified ASEAN voice on the crucial issue.

Both capitals should calling for ASEAN to maintain consensus and solidarity ahead of China’s divisive conspiracy.

The statement of the Chairman of the 34th ASEAN Summit in June 2019 reflects ASEAN’s concern and role in the SCS issue.

In particular, affirming the principles of ASEAN’s central role.

However, it is time for countries like Vietnam and Malaysia to work to ensure ASEAN solidarity on the thorny SCS issue.

The 31 October – 4 November Summit in Thailand is the right platform for such a push and to debate on the COC.

The Independent Singapore wrote the following: “Given that there are limited pathways for de-escalation, a code of conduct is certainly the best option going forward while (ASEAN) is concurrently pursuing new economic frontiers with Japan, Australia, India and the United States of America.”

Perhaps a COC is the way to go but the question remains whether China will sign such a document when it is presented in its final form. -/TISG