Malaysia has reiterated its rejection of the Philippines’ sovereignty claim over Sabah, and reasserted its claim to a portion of the South China Sea that Manila said is part of its West Philippine Sea.
In a verbal note to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres dated August 27, Malaysia said its earlier submission seeking to establish the limits of its extended continental shelf (ECS) in a portion of the South China Sea is legitimate under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The original submission by Malaysia on December 12, 2019, stated a claim to an ECS – a portion of the seabed beyond its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone – that included a swathe of sea and several islets that form part of the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines opposed Malaysia’s claim in a verbal note to the UN on March 6. Besides reasserting its claim to the KIG, Manila also argued that Malaysia’s ECS claim is void because it was reckoned from baselines in Sabah, which the Philippines claims as territory.
Sabah is currently occupied and governed by Malaysia as one of its federal states.
In its latest submission to the UN, Malaysia reiterated that it rejects the Philippines’ claim to Sabah, also called North Borneo, saying “it has no basis under international law.” It cited an October 2001 ruling of the International Court of Justice that mentions an opinion by Judge Ad-hoc Thomas Franck.
“Historic claims and feudal pre-colonial titles are mere relics of another international legal era, one that ended with the setting of the sun on the age of colonial imperium,” Franck said in the ruling Malaysia cited.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr drew renewed attention to the Sabah dispute when he tweeted in late July that “Sabah is not in Malaysia.” It was in reaction to an earlier tweet by the US Embassy in Manila that mentioned “Sabah, Malaysia.”
Although the Philippines has never relinquished its claim of sovereignty over Sabah, it has for the most part kept that claim dormant in order to maintain harmonious ties with Malaysia.
The dispute stems from a 19th century document signed by Sulu Sultan Jamalul Alam, which the Philippines interprets as a lease to the British colonizers at the time, but which Malaysia considers a sale.
When Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957, control over Sabah transferred from the British to the nascent Malaysian government.
The West Philippine Sea is the part of the South China Sea that the Philippines claims as maritime territory. It overlaps with portions of the sea also claimed by Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China.
An UNCLOS arbitral tribunal in July 2016 affirmed the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which comprises much of what Manila considers the West Philippine Sea. The tribunal said China's 9-dash line claim to virtually the entire sea is void. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.