IN August, Asean and China agreed on a single text to negotiate the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea – a series of long-drawn negotiations on how countries should behave in the disputed maritime area.
After the announcement, senior Asean officials and their Chinese counterparts quickly got down to work and have met four times with the last meeting in Manila last month.
At the Manila meeting, it is understood Malaysia expressed its grave concern on increasing naval activities in the hotspot area, especially the near collision between a Chinese warship and a US navy destroyer passing by the area in October.
Malaysia, a claimant state, pointedly told China that unhealthy developments in the South China Sea will impact the entire region, in particular the littoral states.
“This is an avenue where we expressed ourselves and we told the Chinese we need to ensure there is no miscalculation.
“The Chinese took note of our concern,” said an official familiar with the negotiations.
Malaysia has been consistent that it wants the South China Sea to be an area of peace and freedom.
The South China Sea has been a contentious issue in Asean meetings for several years, where China has deployed a range of military hardware, including anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles and electronic jammers across the area where it has built islets and turned maritime features into hardened military facilities.
Malaysia along with other Asean members – the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei – are claiming a stake in the area.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad since making a return as Prime Minister had clearly said Malaysia preferred if there was no warship within its waters in the South China Sea and Straits of Malacca.
“It is obvious Dr Mahathir doesn’t like warships. That is why we are mentioning this in our meetings.
“It is of concern to us on the danger there. We don’t want any risk of naval encounters that can bring instability,” said the official.
As the 33rd Asean Summit takes place in Singapore this week, countries are looking for some “leadership” from Malaysia on the issue.
The Philippines under former president Benigno Aquino was vocal but under Rodrigo Duterte, Manila has been rather “muted” except his criticism against China once in a while. Vietnam like Malaysia continues to speak on the dangerous situation in the area.
The 10 Asean leaders will be meeting their counterparts from Australia, China, Japan and the United States where the South China Sea issue is expected to be raised.
An official said there will continue to be noise on South China Sea as long as negotiations are taking place.
“Everyone is looking on the progress of the CoC. The question is whether it will be legally binding or how countries will progress in putting their interest and rights.
“The CoC is not a process for territorial and maritime claims but every country must protect their own rights and interest.
“The user states and other countries like US which use it for navigation in the area, also have their interest in it,” the official added.
On a positive note, though, meetings at the official level are held more regularly now where countries can express their views and concerns.
“This is a process that no one should feel that it should be hurriedly hastening the CoC.
“We are doing consultation, saying which idea we like, which we don’t. This is where we are right now,” said an official.
For sure negotiations on the single text of the CoC is closely watched around the world.