President Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad watch a cultural show during a welcome ceremony at Malacañang yesterday.
President Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad watch a cultural show during a welcome ceremony at Malacañang yesterday.
KJ Rosales
Philippines, Malaysia press freedom of navigation in South China Sea
Christina Mendez, Edith Regalado (The Philippine Star) - March 8, 2019 - 12:00am

Duterte thanks Malaysia for supporting peace process

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte and visiting Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad emphasized yesterday the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea in maintaining peace and progress in the region, which is grappling with territorial disputes as well as China’s muscle-flexing.

Emerging from an expanded bilateral meeting at the Aguinaldo State Dining Room, Duterte said he and the 93-year-old Malaysian leader also committed to observe the “rule of law” and international rules in handling disputes.

Mahathir began his three-day state visit to the Philippines on Wednesday.

“We emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation and flight over the South China Sea, as well as the peaceful settlement of disputes,” Duterte said, reading from a joint statement with Mahathir at the start of the state banquet.

“We affirmed our commitment to collaborate in regional and multilateral platforms, particularly within ASEAN to advance the rule of law in Southeast Asia and beyond,” Duterte said. “This is, without resort to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law.”

The Philippines and Malaysia are among the claimants in the South China Sea, along with China, Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Duterte’s and Mahathir’s discussing regional security came in the wake of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assurance of US help in case the Philippines is attacked by a foreign country.

Earlier in the day, Mahathir urged China to define its so-called “ownership” in the South China Sea so that other claimants can start efforts to develop the area.

The other day, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua also voiced his country’s commitment to peace and stability in the region. He batted for the need to work on a Code of Conduct among China and ASEAN countries in relation to the South China Sea.

After his meeting with Duterte, Mahathir revealed Malaysia is upbeat about the creation of a new Bangsamoro region in Mindanao – a development that he hopes would lead to more robust economic cooperation.

He stressed Malaysia would continue to help the Philippines develop Mindanao, where many areas are still scarred by decades of armed conflict.

“Given the vast economic potential of this area, I believe with the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or BARMM, we have to boost economic ties between both countries. I therefore assured Mr. President of Malaysia’s desire to continue to be of help in the development of Mindanao,” Mahathir said.

“I congratulated President Duterte on the success of the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law and the appointment of members to the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA). I look forward to the smooth transition of the ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) through the interim government of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao,” he added.

The creation of BARMM is stipulated in the Bangsamoro Organic Law ratified by Mindanao voters in two plebiscites held this year. BOL is the product of the landmark peace agreement signed by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2014.

The new region will replace the ARMM and will have greater share in national government revenues. The BTA, which has 80 members, assumed leadership over BARMM last Feb. 26 and will serve as its interim regional government until June 30, 2022.

Mahathir regarded his visit as further bolstering the “high level of friendship” with the Philippines. 

“Malaysia expects to be friendly with the Philippines all the time and also we expect that we can extend any help that we may be able to extend to resolve some of the problems faced in the south of the Philippines island – in Mindanao,” the prime minister said.

“We know that such insurgencies only weaken nations – only peace brings about wealth and prosperity,” Mahathir said, referring to the decades-long conflict in Mindanao.

“As long as there is resort to conflicts and war, there will be no development. And because there will be no development in a certain area, there will be disparities between different areas. And this, of course, stands in the way of good governance as well as development of the country,” Mahathir said.

He said he is glad that the “prolonged struggle has ended with peace and now the people of Mindanao have cause to celebrate as much as the people in the rest of the Philippines.

“The achievement of something that was nearly impossible before. Now there is peace in Mindanao and there is a form of relationship between the different parts of the Philippines which augurs well for the development and growth of the Philippines,” Mahathir said

Increasing trade

Duterte and Mahathir also discussed bilateral trade, which the Malaysian leader described as “increasing” but “largely in favor of Malaysia.”

The Philippines is Malaysia’s 15th largest trading partner globally and its fourth largest trading partner among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“I believe there is still room for improvement and from my meeting with Mr. President, we would encourage private sectors from both countries to explore opportunities of collaboration and venture in new cooperation and investments,” Mahathir said.

“The President and I strongly believe that trade and investment between the two countries could be further strengthened in the coming years,” he added.

Mahathir said one of the main priority areas where cooperation can be strengthened is enhancing connectivity. 

He said Malaysia and the Philippines have been actively involved in the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area and could use the regional cooperation as a platform to assist the Mindanao Development Authority.

Mahathir said he and Duterte also talked about developments in tourism, health, education and private sector investments. He said he was looking forward to the crafting and signing of a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in health.

“I highlighted that Malaysia has been a favorite healthcare destination for the Philippines. The number of patients from the Philippines seeking treatment in Malaysia has been increasing over the years,” the Malaysian leader said.

The two leaders also stressed the importance of education, including programs for teachers and students in Madrasahs, especially in Mindanao.

Mahathir said Malaysia is also committed to taking necessary steps to address terrorism and violent extremism through the Trilateral Cooperation Agreement. Under the agreement, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia will conduct unilateral maritime and air patrols to combat common threats.

The President, on the other hand, expressed his gratitude to Mahathir for the valuable opportunity to renew and reaffirm valued relations that must continue to grow in strength in the coming years.

“With the Philippines and Malaysia staying on track as part of the growth engines of Asia and the world, broadening our engagement across many fields will be crucial for the continued benefit of our nations and people,” Duterte said.

The President said he looks forward to further discussions with Malaysia on matters of mutual interest and concern.

“It is my hope that we will continue to open up new areas of cooperation, more meaningful partnership,” Duterte said.

“I am keen to listen to and reflect upon the Prime Minister’s thoughts and development between the Philippines and Malaysia as well as in the region,” Duterte said.

“Indeed, there is much to look forward to as we write a new chapter of cooperation between the Philippines and Malaysia,” he said.

At the end of his speech, Duterte said the “Philippines’ destiny is in ASEAN and in Asia. Asia’s destiny is in Asia.” – With Alexis Romero

MAHATHIR MOHAMAD SOUTH CHINA SEA WEST PHILIPPINE SEA
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