South China Sea! Why M’sia Can Never Afford To Lose Sabah; And Vice Versa

And these entire islands belong to Sabah. - Internet photo
And these entire islands belong to Sabah. – Internet photo

Sabah’s geopolitical location is important for Malaysia’s security. Geopolitical expert and member of SEEDS, Dr Asri Salleh, explains how future conflicts could happen in Sabah’s surrounding maritime areas and why security issues cannot be taken for granted

COMMENT: If there ever were an all-out war in the Southeast Asian region, one can safely put their bet on the Spratlys. Here are the reasons why.

In 1978, a group of Malaysian engineers reached the shore of Amboyna Cay, and placed a stone marker next to an existing one (Vietnamese). Prior to that, Vietnam had occupied Amboyna Cay twice in 1956 and 1973, but never maintained a permanent presence there.

Upon learning of Malaysia’s move, Vietnam dispatched a team to Amboyna Cay in 1979 and removed Malaysia’s marker. Not only has Vietnam never left the island ever since, it has also expanded its naval and air facilities thereon, including an airstrip.


Malaysia has never come back ever since.

The Sipadan–Ligitan Islands situated in the Celebes Sea (Sulawesi Sea) off the south-eastern coast of Borneo, was once a scene where Malaysia and Indonesia almost went to war for. In 1994, at the height of the Sipadan-Ligitan Islands dispute, Datuk Seri Najib (then the Minister of Defence) set foot on the islands, among others, to symbolise Malaysia’s ownership.

A bold move indeed it was since the visit was progressing under the ‘standby and engaged’ mode for guns and weapons of the naval ships of both countries. Both were ready to fire the first shot – marking the first ever naval war between the two. Nevertheless, fate had it that no fire was shot, no missiles malfunctioned, no casualty suffered, and no one died.

The visit was concluded in peace and Najib managed to fly home in one piece. In 2002, the International Court of Justice eventually ruled in favour of Malaysia’s ownership of Sipadan-Ligitan.

Two years prior to Najib’s visit, in 1992, the King of Malaysia paid a visit to another of Malaysia’s disputed islands in the South China Sea – the Swallow Reef, otherwise known in Malaysia as Pulau Layang-Layang.

Southwest Cay, also known as Pugad Island, is a small piece of the Spratlys currently controlled by Vietnam.
Southwest Cay, also known as Pugad Island, is a small piece of the Spratlys currently controlled by Vietnam.

Learning of the impending visit, the Philippines relayed its strong diplomatic objection to Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam joined the fray too but the King went ahead with the visit and became the first of Malaysia’s highest ranking officials who left his legacy – the symbolic ownership – on the Swallow Reef.


Troubles in the Sulawesi Sea are virtually all now taken care of, especially with the recent set up of Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZONE), the relocation of the Malaysian Air Force Squadron from Butterworth, Penang to Labuan, and the completion of the submarine base in Sabah’s Sepanggar Naval Base.

Malaysia now turns its gaze, with all intents and purposes, to the features in the South China Sea.

Besides Swallow Reef and Erica Reef, other features claimed by Malaysia are Ardasier Reef (Terumbu Ubi), Dallas Reef (Terumbu Laya), Louisa Reef (Terumbu Semarang Barat Kecil), Marivales Reef (Terumbu Mantanani), Royal Charlotte Reef (Terumbu Semarang Barat Besar) and Investigator Shoal (Terumbu Peninjau).

The disputed islands or islets combined, form part of the country’s delimitated 12 nautical miles of Territorial Waters, 200 nautical miles of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and 200 nautical miles of Continental Shelf (CS) as gazetted by Peta Baru Menunjukkan Sempadan Perairan dan Pelantar Benua Malaysia (New Map Showing the Territorial Waters and Continental Shelf Boundaries of Malaysia – 1979).

Malaysia’s claims on the Spratlys, however, are disputed by China, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Sipadan-Ligitan Islands, among others, are important for their tourism attraction while the Spratlys draw their vitality for their significant EEZ, CS, security, fishery and mineral potentials.

China has been criticised for extensive reclamation work and moves to turn submerged rocks into man-made structures.
China has been criticised for extensive reclamation work and moves to turn submerged rocks into man-made structures.

And these entire islands belong to Sabah.

One can only imagine how much the economic potential these disputed islands could contribute to Malaysia’s economy, in general and Sabah’s, in particular. The dispute notwithstanding, Sabah stands to be the main recipient of the Spratlys’ promise of fortune, especially through the offshore petroleum and gas industry, seen as a new source of Sabah’s wealth for many years to come.


The Spratlys are also important to the security of Malaysia because they serve as the country’s forward defence base in the middle of the South China Sea. As such, Malaysia has built several features like a two-storey building, helipad, pier and radar antenna on Erica Reef.

With China in the picture as part of the Spratlys dispute (roaming and grazing everything in its path including the much smaller and out of sorts Southeast Asian vessels and ships manning the disputed islands in the South China Sea), the United States of America (US) would not remain idle by the seaside.

With the US, coupled with its bandwagon of allies now entering the fray, one should never expect a funfair in the South China Sea. Everyone means business here.

Apparently, the South China Sea is one of the most important sea lines for petroleum transportation back and forth between the West and the East. Hence, the US’s deep concern.

Now, know this, that the key to all these is Sabah. If one were to take Sabah out of the equation, accordingly, Malaysia’s claim no longer carries any basis. Consequentially, everything that Malaysia has fought for would eventually come to a standstill.

And this would be unthinkable. Some would have argued that in life, impossibility is a fact.

Vietnam has joined the fray to the hotly-contested Spratly islands in the South China Sea.
Vietnam has joined the fray to the hotly-contested Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

That Malaysia losing Sabah is impossible. However, in international relations, impossibility is an opinion. It never is a fact. It never is. Yugoslavia suffered that. Soviet Union too; Sudan as well. Closer to home, East Timor would not mind sharing stories of how it broke free from Indonesia.


As such, even with any possibility, regardless of how remote and trivial it can and may be, the integrity of Malaysia’s federal structure must remain intact – no matter what it takes. Whosoever is involved and however it unfolds.

The fact that matters is that the geopolitics of Sabah is far too important for Malaysia to take for granted: for the international relations make-up of the region and to a greater extent, for the world.

By the way, the Philippines have never officially dropped its claim over Sabah. Remember?

As such, the next Great War in the region, if there ever were to be one, would most likely be fought at sea. At Sabah waters!

That is why Malaysia can never afford to lose Sabah. And vice versa.

  • Dr Asri Salleh is a geopolitical expert and member of SEEDS.