Friday, July 25, 2003

KL committed to resolving disputes with neighbours

SINGAPORE July 24 - Malaysia is committed to resolving all outstanding issues with its neighbours and will take a firm stand in settling the problems, Deputy Defence Minister Datuk Mohamed Shafie Apdal said on Thursday.

Malaysia will not "run away" from resolving these issues, he said in his keynote address at a one-day forum on Regional Strategic and Political Developments here.

"Like any nation, we will defend our rights and integrity. We want to maintain good relations with all our neighbours. Therefore, we must ensure that relations are good and resolve all problems," he said in his paper on 'The Security Environment in South-East Asia'.

Besides internal problems, he said, ASEAN is also beset with bilateral disputes among its members.

For instance, he said, Malaysia has territorial disputes to be resolved with Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines. There are also skirmishes along the border of Myanmar and Thailand, he noted.

Besides territorial disputes, he said, Malaysia still has not shown any progress towards settlement of many outstanding bilateral issues that have strained relations between the two countries from time to time.

The way out of these bilateral disputes, he said, "is tricky and complex as they are flavoured with national interests and issues of sovereignty."

What have kept the disputes from becoming open conficts, he said, is the mechanisms of confidence-building measures achieved through ASEAN, ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), and bilateral arrangements. "But these mechanisms have neither mandate nor the capacity to tackle the problems head on," he said.

Some disputes, he said, have been referred for arbitration to international institutions such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the case of Sipadan and Ligitan and Pulau Batu Putih.

Joint development of the disputed areas, he said, is another strategy that can be exploited for dispute management.

On the Spratly Islands dispute, he said that China has shown that it is in no hurry to resolve the dispute but it has demonstrated willingness to negotiate with the other claimants over the issue.

The practical difficulty of demarcating the sea boundaries, the poor prospect of fruitful bilateral talks and the clear obstacles to holding multilateral negotiations, he said, all suggested that a negotiated settlement is still far away, and that the potential for armed conflict cannot be overruled.

"Under these circumstances, the best approach in managing the Spratly issue is to continue with the engagement," he said.

Joint development and code of conduct, he suggested, must rigorously be pursued as part of the strategy. Regional security forums and bilateral arrangements provide ready platforms to advance the engagement processes, he said.

On internal conflicts within ASEAN, he said that many security experts argued that these internal problems within individual nations, and not the external threat, posed the higher risks to the region's security.

To a certain extent, and from the economic and social points of views, "this has credential", noting that continued internal problems will deplete the nations' resources that could instead be used for national development.

The unstable environment, he said, will also deter foreign investment, "and not to mention the spillover effect of the conflicts to the neighbouring countries in the form of refugee and sanctuary issues which could strain bilateral relations."

The ASEAN way of not interfering with the internal affairs of member states has been questioned by critics, he said, noting that the question whether ASEAN needs to intervene collectively is a subject of an interesting debate.

"Malaysia upholds the non-interference concept which has served the region well in the past."

But at the same time, Malaysia is also very glad from the recent moves by certain countries to be transparent about their internal problems, he said. - Bernama

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