Malaysia will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Vietnam later this year to strengthen cooperation in maritime security, a Malaysian official said, as the Philippines continues to raise vocal protests against the deployment of Chinese vessels in the Spratly Islands.
Datuk Mohammad Zubil Mat Som, the director general of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), told reporters Monday that the draft of the MoU was currently at the final stage and would soon be submitted to the 0ffice of the Attorney General to be reviewed.
“Both parties, namely the MMEA and Vietnam Coast Guard, have agreed to sign the MoU, which involves cooperation in various fields including enforcement and search and rescue operations,” he said, adding that the agreement would address the encroachment of Vietnamese fishermen into Malaysian waters. Mohammad said that since April 2019, a total of 1,609 Vietnamese fishermen and 159 fishing vessels were arrested in Malaysian waters.
The announcement is a welcome step forward in attempts to resolve disputes between Southeast Asian claimants, something that has prevented them from establishing a unified position in relation to China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
Four Southeast Asian nations – Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei – have disputes with China in the South China Sea. Indonesia, a claimant state in all but name, has also experienced recent frictions with China in the vicinity of the Natuna Islands, which lie close to the southernmost edge of Beijing’s looping “nine-dash line” claim.
But the nations have been hamstrung by ongoing disputes between themselves. To take just one recent example, in December 2019, Malaysia submitted a claim to a U.N. commission extending its continental shelf in its northern waters. The move challenged Beijing’s “nine-dash line,” but also directly challenged Vietnam’s claims in the area, risking friction between two nations that have a shared interested in pushing back against Chinese activities in the vital waterway.
Collin Koh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, described the pending agreement between Malaysia and Vietnam as a “good move that reflects intramural attempt to address bilateral maritime problems between ASEAN member states.”
The importance of Southeast Asian unity has only been underscored by the ongoing and increasingly tense stand-off between the Philippines and China over the presence of more than 200 Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, referred to as Julian Felipe Reef by the Philippines, a low-tide elevation in the Spratly Islands. Beijing claims the vessels are fishing boats but there is convincing evidence that they are an unofficial “maritime militia” designed to assert China’s expansive maritime claims.
The presence of the vessels was first called out by the Philippines on March 23, but escalated into a war of words at the beginning of April, when Manila asked China to withdraw the ships, which it said were “encroaching upon its territorial waters in the South China Sea.” The Chinese Embassy in Manila responded with a color-by-numbers statement that claimed the waters around Whitsun Reef have been “a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana responded in turn by observing that ancient fishing activities were irrelevant, and described Beijing’s disregard for international law as “appalling.” “The Philippines claims stand on solid ground,” Lorenzana added, “while China’s do not.”
The Philippine government has pointed out that Whitsun Reef lies 638 nautical miles from the coast of China’s Hainan Island, and just 175 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Palawan island, well within its 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, as laid out in international maritime law.
The following day, after another statement from the Chinese Embassy that referenced “traditional fishing grounds,” the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department issued a blistering response stating that the Chinese statement contained “blatant falsehoods.” It called for China to “immediately withdraw its fishing vessels and maritime assets in the area,” otherwise, for “every day of delay, the Republic of the Philippines will lodge a diplomatic protest.”
Manila’s vocal response is an attempt to head off China’s de facto capture of another reef in the Spratly Islands, where it has already built artificial island fortresses on seven disputed features. As Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines College of Law and director of the university’s Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told The Australian newspaper, “Whitsun Reef being added to China’s array of artificial island bases would be a significant escalation and a worrying development.”
It remains unclear whether Manila’s attempt to push back against Chinese incursion will ultimately be undermined by President Rodrigo Duterte need for Chinese COVID-19 vaccines. Nevertheless, it highlights the fact that in the face of growing Chinese assertiveness, cooperation between the five Southeast Asian nations with maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea is more vital than ever.