MANILA - Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim believes it will be beneficial for all the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) if the organization takes a common position on the issue of China and the disputed territories in the South China Sea.
Ibrahim said he and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. both believe that the best way to deal with China is to take a position without provoking tension in the region. He said taking a multilateral approach in dealing with Beijing is better since all claimant countries have similar issues with China.
"We did tackle the subject which is quite contentious because of the position we have with China but both of us agree that the mechanism should be bilateral and multilateral to try and engage with the Chinese and to take a position," he said in an interview with ANC's Headstart.
He added: "We have to take a common position and then engage with the Chinese because if we take too combative a view, we will not dissolve, we will not ease the tension. So I think let us start first with an option to get the consensus within ASEAN and take a position with the Chinese to suggest that these are our concerns and I think the best route is to get into an amicable resolution to this."
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually, and has ignored an international court ruling that its claims have no legal basis.
As the leaders of claimant countries in the South China Sea, Anwar said he and Marcos Jr. also suggested "high level" discussions within the ASEAN to come up with a common position.
"Precisely with this concern and I raised the subject with President Bongbong and we did suggest that we should explore a more high level sessions within ASEAN so we could take a common position. Well, the Chinese are willing to discuss and that is certainly positive as far as I'm concerned. Not an easy resolution but we must secure some sort of a basic understanding among ASEAN vis-à-vis China," he also said.
The ASEAN has yet to finalize the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, which will guide member-states in avoiding tensions over the contested waters.
ASEAN AS ZONE OF PEACE
Meanwhile, Anwar, while not against the presence of the US in the region, believes that any military presence should be avoided so as to prevent any tension.
"We have never argued against US presence although military presence in our view should be avoided because that would then provoke and escalate tension. But we want to preserve ASEAN as zone of peace, neutrality and freedom of course. So which means we have to continue to engage with the Chinese and with the US," he said.
"But we would be...if any force east or west starts showing military presence within ASEAN and that we have to strongly guard ourselves," Anwar added.
Anwar likewise said Malaysia has yet to discuss any joint patrol partnerships with other countries.
The Department of Foreign Affairs earlier said the Philippine government is crafting guidelines on the conduct of combined maritime activities, including joint patrols, in the West Philippine Sea with the United States and other regional partners.