MANILA - Sabah belongs to the Philippines, Malacañang said Thursday after a Twitter row between top diplomats of Manila and Kuala Lumpur put a spotlight on the dormant territorial dispute.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein have both fired tweets asserting each country's claims over Sabah, a territory east of Malaysia’s northern Borneo and southwest of the Philippines' Sulu.
While the Philippines recognizes the conflicting claims it has with Malaysia over Sabah, Manila also remains firm in its authority over the territory based on an agreement with the Sultanate of Sulu, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said.
"Sa mula't-mula po, kinikilala natin na mayroon tayong conflicting claim on territory over Sabah at paninindigan po natin na ang Sabah po ay binigay sa atin ng ating mga kapatid na galing sa Brunei. Bingay po sa Sultanate ng Sulu na inassign naman po sa Republika ng Pilipinas," Roque said during a Palace press briefing.
(From the start, we recognize that there is a conflicting claim on territory over Sabah and we will remain firm that it was given to us by our brothers from Brunei. It was given to the Sultanate of Sulu that was assigned to the Republic of the Philippines.)
The Philippines has laid a subdued claim over Sabah, a territory southwest of Sulu and governed by Malaysia, citing a land lease agreement in 1878 between the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Chartered Co.
The territorial dispute however should not affect Manila's ties with Kuala Lumpur, Roque said, as he noted that the Philippines would continue to have a "healthy" relationship with Malaysia.
"We recognize that this matter should not affect our ongoing bilateral ties with Malaysia," Roque said.
"It has not affected it in the recent years, and we will continue to have healthy bilateral relations with Malaysia despite the issue of Sabah," he added.
Just last year, on a visit to Manila, then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said "there is no claim" when asked of the Philippines' assertion of sovereignty over Sabah in an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN News.
In response, the Philippines said there is a claim.
"This unresolved territorial dispute has been dormant. It has not affected our friendly bilateral relations and I think we will maintain, we will definitely maintain this friendly bilateral relation despite and in spite of this territorial dispute," Roque said.
Since June, the Philippines has been transporting Filipinos from Sabah back to their home provinces as part of measures to help undocumented Filipinos facing the COVID-19 crisis.
This was the subject of Locsin's tweet on Monday, where he reacted to a US Embassy post on aid it has provided for "returning Filipino repatriates from Sabah, Malaysia."
The US Embassy has not deleted or amended the tweet despite Locsin's callout. It has not responded to a request for comment.
There have only been intermittent discussions between the Philippines and Malaysia over their competing claims on Sabah, and the latter has continued to govern the territory.
- with a report from Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News