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Latest Sino-Malaysian encounter amidst South China Sea disputes – Whither the shift in Malaysian reaction?
Oh Ei Sun

China's construction on an artificial island it built illegally on Hughes Reef, Spratly Islands, which is claimed by Vietnam. Photo: Mai Thanh Hai China's construction on an artificial island it built illegally on Hughes Reef, Spratly Islands, which is claimed by Vietnam. Photo: Mai Thanh Hai

In the latest episode of the saga involving territorial disputes in South China Sea (SCS), Malaysia will reportedly lodge a formal diplomatic protest with China over the presence of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel near Luconia Shoals, a series of islets and reefs well within Malaysia’s claimed 200-nm exclusive economic zone. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, will supposedly “raise the issue directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping”.
This recent round of somewhat vocal reaction from Malaysia with regard to perceived Chinese assertiveness in SCS represents, at least superficially, a departure from previous relatively low-key responses in similar instances.
To better understand this apparent shift in Malaysian attitude toward alleged Chinese “incursion” into claimed Malaysian waters, the larger pictures of both regional outlooks and overall Sino-Malaysian relations should be taken into account.
Malaysia assumed the annual rotating chairmanship of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) earlier this year. Amidst the continued global economic malaise, the priority for this year’s ASEAN agenda falls not unexpectedly on regional economic development. Specifically, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a free-trade pact reducing and removing most tariffs and non-tariff barriers among ASEAN members, is scheduled to come into force by the end of the year. AEC will also become the basis for negotiations leading toward the even larger Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) involving not only ASEAN but other regional neighbours including, most prominently, China.
As ASEAN chairman, Malaysia thus has its hands almost full this year handling myriad multilateral economic matters. However, the evolving territorial disputes in South China Sea, to which Malaysia is also a claimant party in addition to three other ASEAN members, continue to loom ominously in the shadow.
Malaysia has been described by some researchers as “hedging” in its conventional management of its SCS dispute with China, balancing ASEAN solidarity vis-a-vis China in SCS disputes with Malaysia’s own desire to maintain ever closer economic relations with China. This is in stark contrast to the more confrontational approaches adopted by two other ASEAN claimants in SCS, Vietnam and the Philippines, when it comes to engagements with China in SCS.
I have argued that this somewhat negative “hedging” label is at best only partially accurate. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and Malaysia is China’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia, with their bilateral annual trading volume surpassing USD 100 billion, and is projected to reach USD 160 billion by 2018. It is therefore only logical that Malaysia should want to maintain this fruitful economic relationship with China over and above the territorial dispute with China in SCS that practically offers neither short nor long term solutions.
With these backgrounds in mind, this latest, “louder” about-turn in Malaysian response to China’s actions in SCS may be attributed to at least four factors.
First, over the last year or so, China has engaged in unprecendetedly large-scale land reclamation in various parts of SCS which it claims. Granted, most other SCS claimants have over the years reclaimed lands or buttressed submerged structures in their respective claimed SCS territories. But China has over a short span of time reclaimed over 800 hectares of land in SCS, much more than all the other SCS claimants combined at all times. Inevitably, this raised regional and extra-regional doubts and suspicions. Other SCS claimants, Malaysia included, voiced their concerns in varying tones, some - Vietnam and the Philippines - louder than others, but all proved ineffectual in seeing to it that China stopped reclaiming lands within what it perceived to be its SCS territorial waters, no matter how far-flung away from Chinese mainland. It would appear that Malaysia is at least partially spurred by such Chinese construction of facts on the ground into a higher pitch of response.
Second, "intrusions" by China's official vessels, mostly civilian but occasionally military or at least para-military (as in the present case) as well, into Malaysia's claimed SCS waters have stepped up from being previously biennial or annual "customary" matters into, since late last year, "a daily affair" as claimed by Malaysian naval authorities. Apparently, every time an incident such as this occurred, the Malaysian side would "shadow" the intruded vessel, and afterwards lodge a "diplomatic protest" with the Chinese side, but apparently all to no avail in terms of persuading China to stop such seeming serial intrusive practices. The increasing frequency and escalating intensity of this sort of Chinese vessel presence seemed to have prompted the Malaysian side to upgrade its protest to that between top leaders of both countries.
Third, as in many other international tussles, the various SCS claimants, in advancing their respective claims, would have to employ many shades of tactics, ranging from informal cautions and diplomatic notices, to armed confrontations and forceful occupation. As China argued that its SCS land reclamation was following precedents by other SCS claimants, the Philippines and Vietnam also recently announced in quick succession that they were either organizing tourist groups to their disputed SCS maritime features or constructing touristic infrastructure on them. Seen in this tactically versatile light, it can also be expected that Malaysia would similarly add yet another method, albeit a mild one of airing displeasure at top leaders level, to its list of tools for defending its SCS claims.
Fourth, the United States' renewed strategic commitments to the region perhaps also emboldened some SCS claimants into more conspicuous course of actions versus China. Late last month, addressing the influential security-matter Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the new American Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reiterated the United States's resolve in preserving freedom of passage in SCS, besides censuring China for the latter's large-scale SCS land reclamation. In fact, Carter explicitly said that China's course of actions is pushing more and more regional neighbours toward requesting security guarantees by the U.S. He also pledged more U.S. security resources under the new Southeast Asian Maritime Security Initiatives, and inked various defense cooperation agreements with Vietnam a few days later. This series of not-so-subtle security-enhancement rhetorics and actions on the side of the U.S. are of course not lost in the sight of Southeast Asian SCS claimants. As such, Malaysia upping the ante slightly in pressing its SCS claims should not come as a surprise.
And finally, there is a domestic dimension to Malaysia's latest bolder reaction to perceived Chinese SCS "intrusion" as well. Prime Minister Najib is currently embroiled in a political struggle with one of his predecessors, Dr Mahathir, and thus finds himself in the unenviable position of having to fence off various domestic political salvos from both within and outside the administration. As such, at this particular juncture, the Malaysian government simply cannot appear to be weak and lackluster in the international arena, especially in defending Malaysia’s SCS claims, lest it becomes fodder for further attacks by political rivals.
But at least one somewhat positive bilateral gem can be gleaned from the pronouncements on this latest SCS encounters between China and Malaysia. As Mr Xi and Mr Najib are not scheduled to officially meet in the short run, Mr Najib’s prospective raising of this SCS incident “directly with” Mr Xi would almost necessarily imply that there is some hotlines or at least some special direct channels of communications between the two top leaders. This testifies amply again on the overall close and cordial relations between the two countries. All eyes are on whether this latest SCS incident and its reactions will signify a subtle shift in both the beneficial bilateral relations as well as the collective consensus on SCS among Southeast Asian nations.
Dr. Oh Ei Sun is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University