Malaysia rebukes Beijing as South China Sea ‘lawfare’ heats up

  • Unusually strong statement by Malaysia takes issue with Beijing for claiming it had no right to seek establishment of continental shelf in northern waters
  • Move reflects Malaysia’s rejection of China’s ‘nine-dash line’
Bhavan Jaipragas
Subi reef, one of several islands claimed by China in the South China Sea. Photo: EPA

Subi reef, one of several islands claimed by China in the South China Sea. Photo: EPA

A battle of diplomatic notes to the United Nations between claimants in the South China Sea dispute has taken a fresh turn, with Malaysia rebuking China for claiming Kuala Lumpur had no right to seek the establishment of its continental shelf in the northern part of the waters.

Instead, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government, in a note verbale to the world body dated July 29, stressed that its application was fully within its rights under the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

The unusually strong statement, seen by This Week in Asia on Thursday, said Malaysia rejected “in its entirety the contents” of an earlier note by Beijing on December 12.

The Chinese note had itself been a response to a Malaysian submission to an Unclos body stating that there were areas of potential overlapping claims in the areas where it was seeking to delimit its territory. China at the time had said the Malaysian submission “seriously infringed China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea”.

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The Chinese assertions were “contrary to [Unclos] and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements under the convention,” the Malaysian note verbale said.

A source familiar with Malaysia’s historic position on the sea dispute said while the wording of the latest submission had been surprising, the contents of the note verbale reflected the country’s long-held rejection of China’s “nine-dash line”.

China claims almost the entirety of the waters as part of its controversial “nine-dash line”.

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That boundary is challenged by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei – along with the self governed island of Taiwan.

The Southeast Asian claimants say the Chinese boundary encroaches on their territorial waters as set out by Unclos, while Taiwan – viewed by Beijing as a renegade province – has a similar claim as the Chinese mainland.

The seventh party in the dispute is Indonesia.

The South China Sea, as seen on a globe for sale at a bookstore in Beijing. Photo: AFP

The South China Sea, as seen on a globe for sale at a bookstore in Beijing. Photo: AFP

The northern reaches of the exclusive economic zone of its Natuna islands is within China’s nine-dash line, though Jakarta insists it is an “interested party” and not a claimant in the dispute as its sovereignty over the waters is unquestionable.Malaysia’s latest note verbale follows similar diplomatic notes issued by the PhilippinesVietnam, Indonesia, the United States and Australia since the first exchange between Malaysia and China last December.

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These notes are not normal diplomatic notes between nations, but are submitted to the UN secretary general with a request that they are circulated to other member states.According to a June 10 commentary by Robert Beckman, the head of the Ocean Law and Policy programme at the Centre for International Law in Singapore, the Asean member states’ notes stated that “claims to rights and jurisdiction and to maritime zones in the South China Sea must be in accordance with Unclos, to which they and China are parties”.

“They further state that China has asserted rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea that are not consistent with Unclos,” Beckman wrote.

Philippine officials unveil beaching ramp on disputed South China Sea island

Philippine officials unveil beaching ramp on disputed South China Sea island

The Philippines and Indonesia referred specifically to the 2016 arbitral ruling in which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague (PCA) – in a case brought by Manila against China – ruled that Beijing had no historic claims in the South China Sea.

China, which did not take part in the proceedings, does not recognise the decision.

Vietnam did not mention the arbitral ruling, but mentioned its key points in its note verbale.

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And in the most recent salvo, the US – a non-claimant that is not a party to Unclos – said earlier in July that it fully endorsed the PCA ruling, a stance it had not previously taken.

Said Beckman, in his commentary: “The exchanges of notes verbale are a clear signal that the dispute over the legality under international law of China’s claims in the South China Sea is not going to go away any time soon, notwithstanding the ongoing negotiations between Asean and China to agree on a code of conduct for the South China Sea.”

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