Malaysia protests Philippines’ Sabah, Spratlys claims

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 29) — Malaysia has fired off a diplomatic protest rejecting the Philippines’ territorial claims over Sabah and the Kalayaan Island Group, which covers most of the disputed Spratly Islands.

In an August 27 note verbale sent to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the Malaysian government said the Philippines’ claim to Sabah, formerly known as North Borneo, “clearly has no basis under international law.”

“The Permanent Mission of Malaysia wishes also to inform the Secretary-General that Malaysia has never recognized the Republic of the Philippines' claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah,” the document read.

It also rejected Manila’s “excessive maritime claims” over the entire Kalayaan Island Group in the West Philippine Sea.

Philippines' Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Ed Meñez said the government "is aware" of Malaysia's move and is studying "if a public response is in our interest."

Malaysia's diplomatic note was in response to the one filed by Manila in March, where it protested Kuala Lumpur’s bid to extend the limits of its continental shelf, covering portions of the Kalayaan Island Group. The Philippines stressed it has sovereignty over the area, which it considers part of Palawan province.

“Moreover, the Malaysian submission is projected from portions of North Borneo over which the Republic of the Philippines has never relinquished its sovereignty,” the Philippines said in its diplomatic note in March.

The two regional allies have long kept the decades-old dispute in the back burner, but a tweet from Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. recently triggered a public spat.

"Sabah is not in Malaysia,” Locsin tweeted, calling it a “factual statement.” Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein summoned Philippine envoy Charles Jose over the post, while Locsin hit back, saying he too is inviting the other country’s envoy.

The Sabah dispute

Malaysia has considered Sabah its territory since it became part of the Malaysian federation in 1963. Kuala Lumpur maintains that the United Nations and the international community have recognized Sabah as part of Malaysia.

Manila, however, insists that Sabah was merely on lease to Malaysia by the Sultanate of Sulu, which has ceded sovereignty over the area to the Philippines.

The Sultanate signed a January 22, 1878 lease agreement with the now defunct private firm British North Borneo Company over a part of Sabah, which Malaysia absorbed after the British colonizers left. Malaysia has been paying what it considers cession money of RM5,300 a year to the heirs of the Sulu Sultante until it stopped payments in 2013.

The Philippines has never relinquished its claims to Sabah and considers Malaysia's payments to the sultan's heirs as rent.

The two neighbors are founding members of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose bedrock principles include cooperation and peaceful settlement of disputes. Aside from the Philippines and Malaysia, self-governing Taiwan, Vietnam, and Brunei also have competing claims in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.

CNN Philippines' Lara Tan contributed to this report.