Aquino in Malaysia for first state visit

KUALA LUMPUR - Philippine President Benigno Aquino arrived here last Thursday for a state visit at a time when concern is heightening over China's increased activity in the South China Sea that affects both the Philippines and Malaysia.

A joint press release last week said Mr Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will "exchange views on regional and international issues of mutual concern", but did not spell out if China's assertiveness was on the agenda.

Foreign Minister Anifah Aman did not respond to queries from The Straits Times on this visit, which comes ahead of United States President Barack Obama's visit in April. The US and China are in increasing competition for influence in this region.

Analysts, however, say the two leaders will not be able to avoid discussing the South China Sea issue, although they are not likely to present a united front that may annoy China.

The Philippines and Vietnam are the two South-east Asian nations most outspoken over China's moves in the region, while Malaysia has been noticeably reticent as it seeks to balance its economic interests with its security concerns.

China is Malaysia's biggest trading partner.

Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims to land features in the resource-rich South China Sea, which is claimed by China almost in its entirety.

Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said there is likely to be a lot of concerted effort behind the scenes to find a comprehensive solution.

But Malaysia is not likely to join the Philippines in taking a case against China before an international tribunal.

The most recent venture into Malaysia's 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone by Chinese navy vessels occurred on Jan 26, when three Chinese ships reportedly patrolled James Shoal, an area also claimed by Malaysia.

Beijing regards James Shoal, which lies about 80km off Sarawak and 1,800km from the Chinese mainland, as the southernmost part of its territory.

The Malaysian state of Sabah - which is still claimed by the Philippines - is also not on the agenda, and neither is the Sabah incursion by Philippine gunmen a year ago.

Mr Aquino told the Philippine press last week that Sabah is not on the agenda, although he will inquire about Philippine nationals on trial in Malaysia.

Over 20 Filipino gunmen have been charged with a death penalty offence for landing in a Sabah village in a bid to reclaim the state for the defunct Sulu Sultanate.

"Sabah (is) not part of the agenda. There will be lots of topics, bilateral meetings on peace, trade and commerce. But they are offering lots of help, especially for the Bangsamoro," Mr Aquino said, the last being a reference to the ethnic Muslim Moros in southern Philippines who have been fighting for an independent homeland.

Malaysia has been brokering talks between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front since 2001, and a peace agreement could be signed next month.

Dr Oh said Malaysia and the Philippines had successfully avoided allowing the Sabah dispute to dictate their relationship, which would have been unproductive. Sabah is not likely to change hands at any time, he said.

"This is a very mature way of dealing with disputes, and a good model for resolving the South China Sea disputes too," he said.

Mr Aquino had an audience with Malaysia's King Tuanku Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah before meeting PM Najib and holding a joint press conference last Friday.

This is his first visit to Malaysia since becoming president.

carolynh@sph.com.sg

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