KUALA LUMPUR: The government will verify a Washington-based think tank’s claim of China’s increasing military presence in the South China Sea, says Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.
He also insisted that the issue of sovereignty was one that the government would not take lightly, even if it meant risking the relationship between Malaysia and China.
Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) had earlier this week cited new satellite imagery which showed that China may have installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.
“I will answer this question in English, so they (China) can understand me,” said Hishammuddin when asked to comment on the report.
“Although we are close to China, when it comes to our sovereignty in the South China Sea, I need to make a clear stand on two serious matters,” he told a press conference at the Defence Ministry’s headquarters here today.
The two matters he was referring to included “incidental and unintended incidences in the high seas” which Hishammuddin said may spiral out of control and force Malaysia to be in a confrontational situation between the region’s superpowers.
“The second area that I am very concerned about is the increase in militarisation in the area.
“We need clarification on the report we received from Amti. We have to independently verify this report.”
Hishammuddin also informed reporters present that he will write a formal letter to his counterpart in China and the United States secretary of defence over the matter.
“If it’s true that there is an increase in militarisation in the South China Sea, and I have been very consistent since March this year, we cannot allow military assets to escalate there.
“We will not change our stand and if that requires a push back, it doesn’t matter what our relationship is with the superpowers.
“But if it affects our sovereignty, we have to be firm.”
Amti, in its report, said it had been tracking the construction of identical hexagon-shaped structures to house the weapons on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs, where China has already completed military grade airstrips and installed radars.
“It now seems that these structures are an evolution of point-defence fortifications already constructed at China’s smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson and Cuarteron reefs,” Amti, a unit of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said as reported by Bloomberg.
The international news agency also quoted China’s defence ministry as saying on Thursday that its “installation of defensive facilities in the South China Sea is appropriate and legal”.
The South China Sea conflict heightened this year as China asserted that virtually all of the territory belonged to the Chinese.
In claiming so, it ignored an international tribunal ruling that invalidated its claim.
Six other Asian governments have also claimed part of the sea and some observers view this as a potential flashpoint that could one day spark a massive international conflict.