Spurred on by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s “Look East” policy, Malaysia is looking to China to provide global leadership – but is concerned about Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.

That was the message from economic affairs minister Azmin Ali as he delivered the closing address at the South China Morning Post ’s China Conference in Kuala Lumpur.

“Today we expect China to provide global leadership not just in the economic sphere but in soft power by advancing universal values such as freedom of conscience, mutual respect, and justice,” Azmin said.

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“Being close to China, geopolitical developments in Southeast Asia are viewed as a bellwether of the effects on trade, diplomacy, and security that China’s rise is likely to have on the rest of the world,” he said.

And while Southeast Asia views Beijing’s rapid economic growth with “genuine admiration”, there are concerns about China’s military moves in the disputed South China Sea.

Azmin said: “We maintain that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea must remain unencumbered. The region must remain a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality, and must not be allowed to be militarised.”

Malaysia is among the claimants of the disputed waterway through which some US$5 trillion of goods transit each year.

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Malaysia occupies at least five features in the disputed Spratly Islands, including the oceanic atoll known as Swallow Reef, where it has a small naval presence.

These islands are well within the U-shaped “nine-dash line” that marks China’s claims in the sea.

Observers say the waters have become a flashpoint because of heavy militarisation there by China and other claimant states, while the US sends warships to the area as part of “freedom of navigation” exercises.