1964-1968 US Foreign Policy Re Sabah Dispute


369. Telegram From the Embassy in the Philippines to the Department of State1

13219. Subj: Sabah dispute.

1. Sabah matter discussed fairly intensively between Pres Marcos and Bundy at meeting afternoon July 24.2 Because of extreme sensitivity this subject and speculation this conversation in particular all posts should handle this report with great care. For public purposes Marcos agreed with Bundy that latter should adhere to absolute “no comment” position throughout his trip on the whole subject of Sabah, including the question whether the topic had even come up with Marcos or with GOP officials. Question of disclosure to friendly governments addressed below for appropriate instructions and action by Department.

Following Bundy’s report on Honolulu meeting and general status in SVN, Marcos himself raised the subject of Sabah (setting, incidentally, was totally private, with airconditioner drowning out any listening ears). Marcos’ opening remarks made following points:

A) He noted that claim had been made before he came into office and that his own party had been divided on it;

B) Nonetheless, matter had assumed major importance in the Philippines, and he felt obligated to keep it alive;

C) A week before the ending of the Bangkok talks, GOP had thought it had understanding with Razak the talks would be ended on the note that neither side had convinced the other, but that discussions would continue in some form after an unspecified period of recess. Unfortunately, sharp Malaysian behavior and outright rejection of claim had produced situation in which his Foreign Policy Council had been inclined to recommend immediate military action. He had held this off, and had limited GOP reaction to withdrawal of all but one represent- ative in KL;

D) He volunteered that he was completely opposed to any military action and would indeed “take the issue to the country” if necessary to prevent this. At the same time, he said that Muslim feelings in neighboring areas ran high and that there might be some private raids that he could not control;

E) In conclusion, he expressed the hope that USG could act to produce “more civil” attitude by GOM, again making clear that he felt major need to keep the issue alive and at least apparently under serious discussion. He also mentioned ICJ, but without pressing it.

2. In reply, Bundy made following points:

A) USG had not been, and would not become involved in dispute on either side. We took no position on the merits of the claim or on responsibility for the breakup of the Bangkok talks. We felt it essential to adhere to this position. (At the same time, Bundy remarked that when claim had first been raised, he had expressed clear private views on it—unstated but clearly implied to be negative—but would not do so in present circumstances. He also noted that there was “widespread impression” that closing phases of Bangkok talks had been affected by the “rather crisp” presentation of Ambassador Guerrero. Marcos obviously took in both points, but did not pursue them.);

B) At the same time, we did feel it right to convey to Marcos the serious effect that failure to “damp down” the dispute would have on American public support for U.S. policy in SEA. Bundy referred back to reference he had already inserted in discussions of Honolulu meeting to the fact that such public support was currently threatened, as never before, and that there was serious danger of its erosion. In this context, Bundy noted, serious dispute between two friendly nations and keymembers of ASEAN could have serious negative consequences in terms of U.S. public and Congressional opinion;

C) Bundy went on that any resort to military action would be disastrous in the same context. We welcomed Marcos’ clear statement on this aspect, and Bundy said we would have had no doubt that this was GOP position (sic), and that we were equally confident that any measures GOM might take would be defensive in character (no reference was made to any specific items of evidence, other than “inevitable rumors”, nor did Marcos follow up or mention any specific items.);

D) In line with Marcos’ desire to keep the matter under discussion, we continue to feel that any USG role would be most unwise, but equally felt that Asian friends of both parties might play useful role particularly in the corridors at the forthcoming ASPAC and ASEAN meetings. Bundy particularly noted that both Thai and Indonesia were interested and objective nations and also referred to Korean concern expressed to Bundy in Seoul—noting that Bundy had suggested side discussions in Canberra and also that we did not believe ROKG itself knew enough about the matter to be really helpful.

3. Marcos took all this in good part. His manner throughout was sober, and gave impression not merely of saying the right things but of meaning them. Discussion flowed easily and with apparent clear understanding.

4. Other discussions during Bundy visit, with Mrs. Marcos and with Ramos, appear to make clear that: A) GOP does regard non-withdrawal of GOM Ambassador in Manila as a conciliatory gesture; B) Ramos definitely plans to attend Canberra and Djakarta meetings personally, and specifically mentioned his hope for quiet discussions with Razak on these occasions; C) Mrs. Marcos’ statement on local political pressure from the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and from student elements seemed unconvincing. Likewise Marcos’ reference to potential revolt in “southern Mindanao”—which he did not amplify—struck a hollow note to us. Nonetheless, Mrs. Marcos made more political sense in referring to attacks by newspapers and opportunist opposition elements—and we surmise that this is the core of the matter here.

5. In sum, we believe that private conversation can have left Marcos in no doubt (A) that we were not going to become involved and that we are looking to Asian friends to help; (B) that our objective judgment was that continued crises on this issue would have serious negative effects on our ability to continue policies of President Johnson, which we believe to be…Please click to read more.