China ‘can claim the South China Sea’: former Malaysian PM

Mahathir Mohamad said that one day Beijing may realize the claim ‘means nothing.’
By RFA Staff
2024.05.27
China ‘can claim the South China Sea’: former Malaysian PM Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a news conference at his office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.
Vincent Thian/AP

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that China can claim the South China Sea, but that doesn’t mean that other countries with overlapping claims should accept it, a view that differs from the Malaysian government’s official line. 

Beijing has drawn a so-called nine-dash line to demarcate its “historic claim” of 90% of the disputed waters. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also hold conflicting claims over smaller parts of the South China Sea.

“OK, you can claim,” Mahathir said at the annual Future of Asia conference hosted by Nikkei Inc. in Tokyo at the weekend. “We don’t accept your claim but we don’t have to go to war against you because of your claim.”

“Maybe one day you will realize that the claim means nothing,” the 98-year-old former leader said. He did not elaborate.

Mahathir’s statement appears to differ from the Malaysian government’s official line. Most recently in 2023, Malaysia, together with the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, rejected China’s map that depicts its sovereignty in the South China Sea.

“They claim that the South China Sea’s belonging to them, but they have not stopped ships from passing through,” he said, adding that Kuala Lumpur has been producing oil and gas in the sea but “so far they have not done anything.” 

“As long as there is no stoppage of the passage of ships through the South China Sea then it’s good enough.”

The former leader argued that priorities should be given to maintaining peace and fostering economic development.

The 10-member Southeast Asian bloc, ASEAN, has been peaceful “compared to other regional groupings,” he said, “Until now there’s no major wars between ASEAN countries.”

ASEAN could serve as “a good model” for the world where there are different ideologies but “we don’t go to war with each other.”

Malaysia will hold the grouping’s rotating chair in 2025, taking over from Laos.

Not taking sides

When asked about China-U.S. rivalry, the veteran leader urged regional countries to stay neutral as “if we take sides, we are going to lose either the American market or the Chinese market.”

He noted that China did appear to be aggressive but it was the biggest trading partner for ASEAN countries and “we cannot lose that market.” 

He also warned against taking sides in the Taiwan issue, saying that there was “no necessity” to see a confrontation between China and Taiwan.

Beijing considers democratically governed Taiwan a Chinese province that should be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. 

Last week, China conducted a two-day “punishment” military exercise around Taiwan, believed to be in response to the inauguration of the new Taiwanese president, Lai Ching-te.

Mahathir said that  China’s leader, Xi Jinping, “seems to be more ambitious and aggressive,” but China’s policies may change in  future because of changes at the top.

“Leaders don’t live forever so policies may change when leadership changes,” he said. 

Mahathir Mohamad, who will be 99 in July, served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and again from 2018 to 2020. 

Incumbent Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was also present at the Future of Asia 2024 forum and delivered a speech.

In an interview with Nikkei Asia on the forum’s sidelines, Anwar said that his focus “will be the economy.”

Malaysia’s position remains that disputes should be settled via engagement and the way forward is to seek peaceful resolution through negotiations, according to Anwar.

Future of Asia, held by Japan’s Nikkei annually since 1995, is “an international gathering where political, economic, and academic leaders from the Asia-Pacific region offer their opinions frankly and freely on regional issues and the role of Asia in the world,” according to the company.

Edited by Taejun Kang and Mike Firn.

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