Mat Sabu stands firm on regional security

The US-China frictions have made it difficult to maintain stability in Asia-Pacific, says the defence minister

By ALIFAH ZAINUDDIN / Pic By TMR File

Mohamad Sabu recently attended the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue 2019 in Singapore, a prestigious gathering of defence leaders from all over the world. As the defence minister, he gave a glimpse of Malaysia’s position on regional security.

It was also the first time the minister spoke about the country’s defence strategies to a global audience since Pakatan Harapan came into power more than 12 month ago.

Interestingly, he took the opportunity to underline — albeit tactfully — the need for South China Sea to remain an area of amity.

This came days after Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad expressed support for China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd.

Dr Mahathir’s clear support for the tech giant had prompted China’s ambassador to Malaysia to pen a lengthy article on the 45-year-old bond between the two countries.

Amid heightened US-China frictions, the defence minister said that uncertain relationship between the two economic powerhouses has made it difficult to maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific region, especially for countries in South-East Asia.

Highlighting the controversial South China Sea conflict, Mohamad said big power rivalries posed great risks to naval ships and aircraft encounters.

This, he said, could spark major clashes that would drag Asean member states into an unwanted regional confrontation.

“The South China Sea should remain an area of peace, friendship and trade rather than one of confrontation and conflict, where Asean and the rest of the world can leverage on our strategic location,” the minister said in a plenary address.

“We love the US, but we also love China,” he quipped. Mohamad added that Malaysia will actively participate in efforts toward finding solutions to global issues and will continue with the principles of engagement and cooperation rather than isolationism and unilateral action in foreign affairs.

Geopolitics observer Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal said Mohamad was very cautious and prudent, but realistic in articulating Malaysia’s defence diplomacy stance on regional security. “We are not taking sides and have refused to be embroiled in big power politics. Mohamad did not do as good as the French minister but good enough to make Malaysia’s stand clear,” he told The Malaysian Reserve. Wan Ahmad Fayhsal is also special functions officer to the Youth and Sports minister.

French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly, who was on the same panel as Mohamad along with UK Defence Secretary of State Penny Mordaunt, delivered a tough stance.

He said France will continue to sail more than twice a year in the South China Sea despite objections.

The South China Sea is subject to several overlapping territorial disputes involving Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

China claims over 80% of the sea area, while Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands.

The Philippines asserts ownership of the Spratly archipelago and the Scarborough Shoal, while Brunei and Malaysia have claimed sovereignty over southern parts of the sea and some of Spratly Islands.

Dr Mahathir has been upfront about China’s dominating presence in the strategic waterway, saying he would not want to see too many warships in the region.

The South China Sea, China, claims by regional countries and superpowers asserting their “influence” one of the world’s busiest waterways will continue to get “skirmishes, close calls, threats and provocation”. But the one thing the region does not need is a full blown conflict.

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