Malaysia Flare-Up Illustrates Volatility
Territorial Claim Shows How Age-Old Conflicts in Asia Can Unexpectedly Arise, Threatening Regional Stability
Such conflicts threaten the stability that has helped underpin decades of economic growth, potentially complicating the U.S.'s bid to step up its military and diplomatic influence in a region where China exerts growing sway.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered Tuesday's dawn assault after some 200 Filipinos claiming to be descendants of the defunct sultanate of Sulu dumbfounded Malaysia by sailing from the nearby southern Philippines to revive a 350-year-old claim to control of Sabah, Malaysia's easternmost state on the island of Borneo. At least 26 people were killed in clashes between the armed intruders and Malaysian security forces before military jets began bombing the Filipinos' coastal camp.
"Operations are still ongoing," Malaysia's armed forces chief, Gen. Zulkifeli Zin, told reporters. "It's not going to be easy because we have a big area to cover. Nevertheless, we are able to contain them so far in an area of approximately four square kilometers."
Mr. Najib struck an uncompromising tone as the operation got under way earlier in the day. "For our sovereignty and stability, we will not allow even an inch of Malaysian territory to be threatened or taken by anyone," he said.
The nearly monthlong standoff is disrupting palm oil exports from Sabah, which produces 30% of Malaysia's output. Further violence could unnerve foreign investment in the state as well as damage Mr. Najib's chances in an election due to be held by June. Companies such as Royal Dutch Shell RDSA.LN +0.99% PLC and ConocoPhillips Co. COP +0.07% have invested heavily in developing oil and gas fields in the area, while Chinese companies have plowed money into hydropower developments, among other investments.
The Filipinos appear to be standing firm on their claim. Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for self-declared Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, told reporters the group would continue to fight for Sabah, which they say was granted to Mr. Kiram's family by the sultan of Brunei in the 17th century.
The Philippine government said Tuesday it had tried bring a peaceful end to the standoff by sending Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to Malaysia urge restraint, while Philippine President Benigno Aquino III twice appeared on national television in recent days to urge Mr. Kiram's followers to lay down their arms and end their quest.
"We've done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end, Mr. Kiram's people chose this path," Philippine government spokesman Ricky Carandang said.
Some analysts say the standoff shouldn't have come as a surprise given the region's historical ties, and that it might also point to the dangers of other, perhaps larger flash points elsewhere in the region.
Glenda Gloria, a Manila-based author and historian, notes that residents of the Philippines' Muslim provinces frequently traveled back and forth between Malaysia and Indonesia, trading and speaking a similar language before European and American colonizers introduced national boundaries.
Many Muslim Filipinos sought sanctuary in Sabah in the 1970s and '80s while fighting a separatist war against late dictator Ferdinand Marcos's government.
"Sabah was always part of their real—and imagined—community," Ms. Gloria says, pointing out that migrants from the southern Philippines now living in modern-day Sabah often refer to themselves as Suluks rather than Filipinos.
There are similar problems in other parts of Southeast Asia. In 2008 and 2011, Thailand and Cambodia fought brief border wars that claimed scores of lives and strained relations between the two countries. The cause: a dispute over which country should control a Buddhist temple after France decades ago demarked the border between the countries.
Papuan separatists in eastern Indonesia, meanwhile, are fighting to break away from central rule in Jakarta, while an ethnic-Malay Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand has killed more than 5,000 people since 2004 as guerrillas rebel against the annexation of the old Pattani sultanate by what was then Siam in 1902.
Farish Noor, a professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, argues that in many instances, these conflicts are caused by old customs butting up against arbitrary modern national boundaries.
"We Southeast Asians are caught between a fluid region and a hard state," he says.
Then there is the South China Sea, where China is locking horns with countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines that also claim portions of the potentially resource-rich waters. The region's fractious geography has raised concerns in the U.S. and elsewhere about the stability of some of the world's more important shipping routes, as the Obama administration continues its diplomatic pivot back to Asia.
This rivalry between China and the U.S. is "the very beginning of a drama that will move Southeast Asia to the center of global geopolitics for the foreseeable future," Marvin Ott, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in a recently published academic paper.
After the latest bloodshed in Sabah, meanwhile, more specific concerns are mounting over how Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines, a known training ground for Islamist militants from across Asia, will respond to the Philippine governments' efforts to persuade the defunct Sulu sultanate to shelve its claim.
The different separatist groups have both cooperated and quarreled in the past. Security officials in the Philippines are concerned that the Sabah spat could derail peace talks with the largest guerrilla group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
One smaller rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, supports the claims of Mr. Kiram's followers. The larger Islamic Front, though, is choosing to hold its tongue for the time being.
"That's a very sensitive issue. We cannot issue any statement on that," its chief peace negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal, told a Philippine radio station Tuesday.
—Shie-Lynn Lim, Celine Fernandez and Rhea Sandique-Carlos contributed to this article. Write to James Hookway at email@example.com