Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim said Southeast Asian nations have to defend their territory amid Beijing’s aggressive moves to expand shoals into artificial islands and build military facilities in the South China Sea.
Anwar, who is widely expected to take over eventually from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, made his statement during an open forum near the U.S. capital on Sunday, the same day that Washington drew Beijing’s ire for sending two warships near the disputed Spratly Islands.
“On the South China Sea, we have taken a position that we will defend our territory,” Anwar, 71, said in reply to a question that followed his speech at the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a nonprofit based in Herndon, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington.
“The best option is to work with other small countries in ASEAN to defend our security position, particularly because we cannot expect the United States – given the situation now – to be more positive with regard to the region,” Anwar said, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Shortly after the American navy sailed the guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble within 12 nautical miles of the Spratlys on Sunday night, China accused the United States of trespassing in its territorial waters, warning that it had deployed missiles “capable of targeting medium and large ships.”
“The U.S. action violated the Chinese laws and international laws, infringed China’s sovereignty, damaged regional peace, security, and order,” Lu Kang, the spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Beijing. “China will take necessary actions to protect state sovereignty.”
China’s warning came as officials from the two nations were in Beijing for a new round of trade talks scheduled for this week.
The U.S. Navy said the destroyers sailed as part of “freedom of navigation operation.” In January, the destroyer USS McCampbell also sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands.
Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet, was quoted by CNN as saying that Sunday’s operation was carried out “to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.”