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South China Sea

Malaysia says China's maritime claims have no legal basis

Country uses language similar to US and Australia over South China Sea

A helicopter takes off from the U.S. Navy's USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in the South China Sea on July 17.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- In a letter to the United Nations, Malaysia has stated that China's maritime claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis, potentially signaling that Kuala Lumpur is hardening its stance.

In a note verbale dated Wednesday, the Malaysian mission to the U.N. wrote to Secretary General Antonio Guterres that it "rejects China's claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the 'nine-dash line.'"

Noting that China's claims are contrary to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos, it added, "The Government of Malaysia considers that the People's Republic of China's claim to the maritime features in the South China Sea has no basis under international law."

The language echoed a joint statement issued by the U.S. and Australia earlier this week, in which the ministers of foreign affairs and defense affirmed that "Beijing's maritime claims are not valid under international law."

Earlier, on July 13, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a landmark statement on the South China Sea, declaring, "Beijing's claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them."

Malaysia and China have each been submitting note verbales to the U.N. regarding the disputed waterway, but Malaysia's wording until now had centered around its own right to establish a continental shelf in the northern part of the sea.

"Malaysia's latest statement is surprising on the heels of Pompeo's shift in [South China Sea] policy because Mahathir had refused to choose sides -- U.S. or China -- but then again Malaysia has a new leader now," said Rand senior defense analyst Derek Grossman, referring to Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who replaced Mahathir Mohamad earlier this year.

Malaysia has never accepted the nine-dash line China uses to claim most of the South China Sea for itself. But it has typically kept a lower profile on the issue than some of its neighbors.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak -- convicted on Tuesday on multiple corruption charges -- had actively courted Chinese investment while calling for a peaceful resolution to South China Sea disputes, before his defeat to Mahathir's coalition in the May 2018 election.

Late last year, Mahathir said Southeast Asian countries needed to work with Beijing. "We are not really strong enough to tell the Chinese, 'No, you should not do this kind of thing, it is the international law,' or whatever," he said at a Council on Foreign Relations event in the U.S.

A Malaysian defense white paper issued shortly before Mahathir's resignation was worded carefully: "Malaysia maintains friendly relations with all countries and seeks peaceful resolution of disputes based on international law. The South China Sea should be a platform for cooperation and connectivity, not an area of confrontation or conflict area."

Wednesday's note verbale, however, employed much stronger wording than Kuala Lumpur had used in previous communications with the U.N., suggesting the Muhyiddin government may be emboldened by the tougher U.S. line.

In a similar communication, Indonesia told the U.N. on June 12 that China has no historic rights in Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf.

In July 2016, an independent arbitral tribunal established under Unclos dismissed Chinese territorial claims to the region and ruled in favor of the Philippines. Beijing has called the ruling "illegal, null and void."

In note verbales to the U.S. secretary general, China has said that its territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea are established in the long course of historical practice. "They are clear and consistent with international law," including Unclos, it said in June. 

Additional reporting by James Hand-Cukierman in Tokyo.

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