369. Telegram From the Embassy in the Philippines to the Department of State 1

13219. Subj: Sabah dispute.


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.

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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:

He noted that claim had been made before he came into office and that his own party had been divided on it;
Nonetheless, matter had assumed major importance in the Philippines, and he felt obligated to keep it alive;
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;
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;
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.

In reply, Bundy made following points:
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.);
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 key [Page 818]members of ASEAN could have serious negative consequences in terms of U.S. public and Congressional opinion;
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.);
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.
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.
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.
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 supported in essence by the most likely successors.

Department will wish to instruct key posts on how to handle this discussion in local capitals. Bundy instinct is that Australians and perhaps British should be told full position for their own knowledge [Page 819]only, with explanation that this line of argument seemed to us the one likely to be most effective here and at same time least susceptible to negative consequences. We would think our disclosure to KL, if any, should be more limited. We might be able to go further in private talks with Malik and Thanat.

Bundy would propose to explore Thanat’s feelings and views at planned dinner tonight in any event, and to throw out lines of thought suggested in Deptel 208279.3

What is most vital, from every standpoint, is that there should be no report that could possibly leak to the effect that we had had put “pressure” on the GOP. This would be the one thing that could really undo things here, both in terms of possible effect on GOP behavior and in terms of our wider relations and interests.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 32–1 MALAYSIA–PHIL. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Repeated to Bangkok, Canberra, Djakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and London.
  2. William Bundy had attended the Honolulu Conference between Presidents Johnson and Thieu of South Vietnam. After the conference, he visited U.S. allies in East Asia, including the Philippines, for consultations. In telegram 8708 from Seoul, July 23, Bundy asked for advice for his meeting with Marcos on the Sabah question. Bundy stated he was inclined to have “a heart-to-heart” and recalled that Rusk had told him to “make it crystal clear that if there were to be any conflict [over Sabah] whatever, they [the Philippines] could count on nothing from us.” Bundy proposed “to be extremely frank and tough with Marcos alone, but not to spread the word.” (Ibid.) The Department concurred in telegram 20694 to Manila, July 23. (Ibid.)
  3. In telegram 208279 to Manila, Bangkok, and Djakarta, July 24, the Department suggested that the ASEAN Ministerial meeting offered the best prospect for reopening negotiations on Sabah and wondered if a study group under ASEAN reporting to the group might be the best mechanism. (Ibid.)