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Philippine claim on Sabah will undermine regional security efforts

The recent proposal by a Filipino government representative to amend the Philippine constitution, to include Sabah within a federal system, will likely be shunned

The potential inclusion of Sabah risks legitimising fringe political voices and unsettling Malaysia-Philippine bilateral relations.

During the Philippines’ Consultative Committee, former senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr declared the Philippines should assert its ‘claim to Sabah’ under international law.

The committee was formed to review and propose amendments to the country’s 1987 constitution. It discussed switching from the current unitary political model to a 12-state federal system – with a future option of including Sabah as the 13th federal state.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman criticised the proposal, reiterating that Malaysia does not recognise the Philippines’ claim. Sabah is recognised under international law as part of Malaysia since it was formed in 1963.

Pimentel’s claims are unlikely to translate into government policy. Nevertheless, just by entertaining these ideas, President Rodrigo Duterte risks harming Malaysia-Philippines relations, particularly the security partnership – demonstrating vulnerabilities that could be exploited by adverse groups.

The claim

The case for Philippine ownership of Sabah relates to the Sulu Sultanate, a thalassocracy established in 1405. The Sultanate used to rule over parts of southern Philippines and Sabah, before the British acquired Sabah in 1878. The Sultanate claims that Sabah was only leased, and not ceded, to Britain, and consequently that the Sultans never relinquished sovereignty.

Britain contributes annual payments to the Sultanate, which it views as ‘cession payments’ – however the Sultans view these as ‘lease payments’. Although pursued during the reign of Ferdinand Marcos, the Sabah claim was dropped in the 1987 constitution, under the presidency of Corazon Aquino. Aquino viewed the issue as a risk to Asean unity. In 2009, Sabah was written out of the Philippine’s legal Archipelagic Baselines, maritime jurisdiction, and thought…

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