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Keep our backyard safe

/ 05:02 AM August 29, 2020

Despite the continuous news reports of the South China Sea being a flash point between the United States and China, most Malaysians would regard the place remote, if not inconsequential.

But it isn’t really that far from our backyard. Pulau Layang Layang, which is part of the Spratly Islands, is a mere 300 kilometers northwest of Kota Kinabalu. Pulau Layang Layang is just a speck in the sprawling archipelago of the South China Sea’s numerous islands, cays, islets, and reefs. The atoll, which is barely 7-km long and 2-km wide, is under Malaysia’s administration, meaning we call the shots.

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Other countries, including China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, call this island by different names and claim it’s theirs, too. The Philippines has claimed part of the Spratly Islands as its territory as well. China uses an imaginary nine-dash line to cover most parts of the South China Sea, per its historic claim, which overlaps with the takes of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

The South China Sea claims have become increasingly unsettling because China has strengthened its presence there by building artificial islands with military installations in parts of the vast sea.

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One-third of the world’s maritime shipping reportedly passes through it, carrying over $3 trillion in trade each year. The region is said to have huge oil and gas deposits under its seabed as well as bountiful fish harvests, comprising about 12 percent of global fish catch, which is why it’s not surprising that over half of the world’s fishing vessels go there, reports reveal. It’s almost impossible to regulate fishing in the South China Sea because of the overlapping territorial and maritime disputes, which prevent effective enforcement of the countries there. More significantly, the South China Sea is also a strategic military spot, and the United States is accusing China of having added 1,300 hectares of land on various reefs, which China has denied.

But what should worry many of us in Asean is that the United States and China have ominously chosen this spot as their battleground, albeit they are still only at the rhetoric level. Washington declared earlier this month that Beijing’s claims to most of the sea are illegal, ramping up support for Southeast Asian nations with claims to parts of it. Australia, which has no reason to be involved, has also rejected Beijing’s territorial and maritime claims, saying there is “no legal basis” to several of them.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has it right in saying we must ensure we are not “dragged and trapped” in a geopolitical spat between heavyweight nations as we try to resolve these disputes. His ministry is keen on constructive resolution through “appropriate diplomatic negotiations.” “If we follow the narrative and succumb to the pressure of superpowers, the potential for Asean countries to bend and take sides with certain countries will be high. When facing superpowers, we must be united, as one bloc, so that our strength will be synergized effectively, ” he said.

Asean needs to take a united stand because individually, we could never challenge the United States or China. Asean needs to remain a bloc even if member countries have overlapping claims on these islands.

These are complicated disputes that can’t be easily resolved, but Asean must never allow the South China Sea to be a battleground between the two superpowers. It’s too close for comfort and Malaysians must wise up to the South China Sea being not far away.

In fact, China perhaps needs to review its diplomatic strategy because it needs to reflect on its impact and how it’s perceived, particularly in the West. China obviously feels it has the right to be a bigger player on the global stage having earned its stripes. However, its increasing assertiveness has been used against the country even though it has never waged war against anyone, unlike the United States.

The United States and its Western allies must also accept that the world has changed. They must accommodate China, whether they like it or not.

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The nations will ultimately do as they please, but let’s hope they keep their battle out of our backyard, the South China Sea, because the situation looks explosive and ground zero is simply too close to home. The Star/Asia News Network

Wong Chun Wai is group editorial and corporate affairs adviser to the Star Media Group Malaysia.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media titles across the region.

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TAGS: 300 kilometers northwest, Kota Kinabalu, Pulau Layang Layang, South China Sea, Spratly Islands
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