No real, direct conflict with Beijing over South China Sea, says Dr M

A Chinese aircraft carrier accompanied by navy frigates and submarines in the South China Sea. (AP pic)

PETALING JAYA: Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad says there is no real or direct conflict with China over its claims on islands in the South China Sea.

While noting that China had laid claim to some islands and atolls in the waterway, he said Beijing had not tried to claim any of the islands belonging to Malaysia.

“So we have no real, direct conflict with them,” he said in an interview with India Today.

Mahathir also said Malaysia was not in a position to take critical action against Beijing over the South China Sea issue, although Putrajaya might reserve the right to criticise.

“We are a small country. We need to survive. We have very powerful neighbours. If we gather a number of countries in the region and take on these powerful countries, then we are inviting trouble.

“It is better for us to deal with the problem based on our abilities. We can be friendly with these big powers or we can criticise,” he said.

He maintained that there were no qualms about Chinese ships going through the waters, saying the issue was with warships being stationed there.

“All ships, warships or not, can pass through these waters freely. But there should be no stopping ships in order to examine, etc.”

Similarly, he said US warships could pass through the South China Sea but should not be stationed in the waters as it would be provocative.

He reiterated that having warships of various nations in the waters was not good as it could lead to incidents that could escalate into conflicts.

Parts of the South China Sea are subject to rival claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam while Beijing claims the entire waterway.

The rival claims to the sea, which straddles vital shipping lanes and covers rich fishing grounds, make it a potential flashpoint for conflict.

China and Asean – of which four claimants are members – are currently in talks for a code of conduct in the area.