Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on Monday said he was prepared to negotiate with China over a maritime dispute between the two countries, days after a think tank reported Chinese patrolling close to a Malaysian offshore gas project.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, through which about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes annually. Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have some overlapping claims.
The issue was raised between Anwar and Chinese President Xi Jinping in China last week as Malaysia has energy exploration projects in the area, Anwar said at an address on Monday at the prime minister’s department.
Anwar did not specify which dispute or which area of the South China Sea.
“In that area there is a similar claim from China. I said (to them) that as a small country that needs oil and gas resources, we have to continue. But if the condition is that there must be negotiation, then we are ready to negotiate,” Anwar said, without elaborating.
China claims about 90% of the South China Sea via a U-shaped “nine-dash line” on its maps that cuts through the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of five Southeast Asian countries.
That line was declared invalid as part of an international arbitration ruling in 2016, which Beijing does not recognize.
Malaysian state oil company Petronas operates oil and gas fields in the South China Sea within Malaysia’s EEZ and has in recent years had several encounters with Chinese vessels.
Those include a month-long standoff between a Chinese survey ship and an oil exploration vessel contracted by Petronas in 2020, which China had said was conducting normal activities.
The U.S. think tank, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), in a report last week said a Chinese coast guard vessel was for the past month operating near Petronas’ Kasawari gas development off Malaysia’s Sarawak state, and came as close as 1.5 miles of the project. A Malaysian navy ship was in the area at the same time, AMTI said.
The vessel, CCG 5901, the world’s largest coast guard vessel, was last active in Indonesia’s Tuna Bloc gas field and Vietnam’s Chim Sao oil and gas field, AMTI said.
The Kasawari field holds an estimated 3 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves and is expected to start production this year.
Malaysia’s navy did not immediately respond to a request for comment and Petronas declined to comment.
China foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning on Monday said they were not aware of the specific incident but said the coast guard operated within China’s jurisdiction and its conduct was beyond reproach.