367. Action Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Bundy) to Secretary of State Rusk 1


  • The Sabah Dispute and ASEAN


As you will recall, at the luncheon May 9, Foreign Minister Thanat raised the question of the Philippine-Malaysian dispute over Sabah and his concern that the dispute may disrupt the ASEAN ministerial meeting in August. Thanat plans to reason with both parties before the bilateral talks on Sabah open in Bangkok June 17. He would like us to persuade President Marcos to cool off the quarrel. We did not at the time so inform Thanat, but we have told the Filipinos informally, when they mentioned the issue, that we thought they should quiet the matter. (See Manila 8618 and State 136076 attached at Tab B.)2

After giving the matter further thought, and discussing it with the Country Directors in EA, I believe that we should continue to avoid active intervention in the Sabah dispute, and to avoid initiating discussions on this issue with any of the interested governments. In arriving at this conclusion, I considered the following points:

Seriousness of Present Impasse—We expect the Bangkok talks on Sabah to fail, with mutual recriminations. Malaysia intends to reject the Philippine claim outright and to refuse a second round of talks, even if (according to one senior Malaysian official) the Philippines react by breaking diplomatic relations again. The Malaysians also plan to stage a military demonstration in Sabah while the bilateral talks are going on. On the Philippine side, President Marcos is reported to have reversed the moderate line urged by Foreign Secretary Ramos, and the Department of Foreign Affairs is now taking a “second hard look” at the relative priorities of regional cooperation and the Sabah claim.
Sabah as a Southeast Asian Problem—We have told both the Filipinos and the Malaysians that we consider Sabah primarily a problem which they will have to work out for themselves. Other members of ASEAN, working separately or jointly, may be able to help them [Page 814]work out a face-saving compromise, or to persuade them at least to try to contain the dispute in order to minimize the damage to regional cooperation. I believe that advice or pressure from outside powers, however well-intended, would only weaken the sense of responsibility of ASEAN members for handling their own affairs, and that at this point, we can best encourage the development of ASEAN by standing aside and letting the member states decide for themselves how to deal with the potential threat posed by the Sabah dispute.
U.S.-Philippine Relations and Philippines in Southeast Asia—I believe that it would be unwise especially for the U.S. to attempt to guide or influence the Philippines on this issue. Such a move would encourage the Filipinos’ tendency to draw us into their affairs and then to consider us responsible for the situation. It would also reinforce the view held by other Southeast Asian nations that the Philippine Government cannot be dealt with as a responsible Government, but must be approached through Uncle Sam, who will keep them in line. If the Philippines is to play a responsible role in Southeast Asian affairs, Fililpino leaders must learn to conduct their affairs without guidance from us, and to bear the consequences of their mistakes.

The attached telegram (Tab A)3 would instruct Bangkok to follow up the luncheon conversation of May 9 with Thanat with a fuller discussion of the Sabah issue, and to outline an appropriate portion of the reasoning I have given above. Other addressees would be authorized to draw on the message in discussions with interested officials, but not to raise the Sabah question independently.


That you sign the attached telegram to Bangkok concerning the Sabah dispute.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 18 MALAYSIA. Secret. Drafted by Ruth A. McLendon (EA/PHL) and cleared by EA, EA/PHL and in draft with EA/IND, EA/MS, EA/TB, and EA/RA.
  2. Both attached but neither printed.
  3. The draft telegram is attached, but is not printed. According to a handwritten note, Rusk approved its transmission and it was sent on May 21 at 12:30 p.m.