Vietnam's claim to islands keeps neighbors wary

Vietnam's territorial claims in the South China Sea are alienating its two potential defenders within the already suspicious Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Both Malaysia and Indonesia are embroiled with Vietnam over conflicting claims to the islands that stretch all the way down from the coast of Vietnam to Indonesia.

In diagreement with more hard-line countries like Thailand and Singapore, Malaysia has long advocated an "open door" to Vietnam. Some Indonesian policymakers want good relations with Vietnam as a possible "buffer" against what they see a greater ultimate threat -- China.

But now comes a report that Vietnamese soldiers have occupied a small South China Sea island off the west coast of the east Malaysian state of Sabah. Sources, quoted by news agencies, said Malaysian survey officials found Pulau Kecil Amboya had been taken over by a Vietnamese force in mid 1977. The Vietnamese were reported to have set up an observation post there.

The question now is whether the issue can be peacefully resolved or whether it will complicate Malaysia's efforts to keep an olive branch extended to Vietnam.

A Vietnamese Embassy spokesman in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is reported to have said the question will be resolved peacefully through negotiations. Sources were reported by news agencies to have said the issue was raised by Malaysian Foreign Minister Tengku Ahmed Rithauddeen during his visit to Vietnam last month. But no detailed discussions were held.

According to sources, both sides seek a peaceful settlement. Complications could arise because the nations have no agreement on demarcation of territorial waters.

In the case of Indonesia, the problem concerns Vietnam's claim to large areas of ocean around the Natunas islands. Usually this dispute has been downplayed, reflecting Indonesia's policy open-door policy with Vietnam.

But some observers believe Indonesia's leaders are divided over the merits of improved relations with Vietnam vs. improved relations with China. Earlier this month there were some statements by Indonesian officials suggesting relations with China would be improved (they now exist but no ambassadors have been appointed). These were followed by an announcement of Indonesian naval maneuvers near the disputed islands.

The apparent "tilt" toward China follows an Indonesian suspicion that Peking involved in an abortive 1965 pro-communist coup.

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