03 August 2015

Malaysia’s “Special Relationship” with China and the South China Sea: Not So Special Anymore

Scott Bentley, Australian Defense Force Academy, “Malaysia’s ‘Special Relationship’ with China and the South China Sea: Not So Special Anymore,” Asan Forum, 31 July 2015.

On June 2, 2015, Minister Shahidan bin Kassim held a press conference to announce an “intrusion” by a foreign vessel in the South Luconia Shoals (Beting Patinggi Ali, in Malay). A picture of the vessel, China Coast Guard (CCG) hull number 1123, was taken during a surveillance flight over the area on which the minister had flown and was subsequently released on his Facebook page.1 He announced that Malaysia was responding to the incident by filing an official protest with Beijing and dispatching navy (RMN) and coast guard (MMEA) vessels to “monitor the vessels twenty-four seven.”2 According to a statement on his Facebook page along with photos, the RMN and MMEA vessels were anchored less than one nautical mile (nm) from CCG 1123, which was itself anchored near the shoals, leading to what is, in effect, an ongoing confrontation in the area.

Coverage in the western press has described Malaysia’s response as “much firmer and more public,”3 even “unusually assertive.”4 According to one analysis, the fact that the intrusion will be taken up and protested at the diplomatic level “could be a signal that Kuala Lumpur has toughened its stance vis-à-vis China’s behavior.”5Others have noted “an apparent departure from Kuala Lumpur’s previous low key approach.”6 But has Malaysia’s approach really changed, and if so, how? The extent to which it has actually toughened its stance on China’s behavior or has become more assertive in the South China Sea is debatable. It is true that the press coverage surrounding the episode was highly unusual for Malaysia, which had previously adopted a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ towards incidents of this nature, chosing not to publicize them. Beyond the new publicity, however, the response outlined by the minister actually differs little in substance from previous Malaysian responses to Chinese activities in the same area, which primarily revolved around a combination of diplomatic protest and active surveillance at sea.

Rather than a substantive shift in policy, the response may be more emblematic of persistent political inertia that has resisted making difficult strategic decisions. The requirement for new strategic thinking has been obscured by what many in the country continue to regard as a “special relationship” with China. Chinese activities over the past several years in the waters off Malaysian Borneo have called into question the validity of this perception, however, and have placed Prime Minister Najib Razak in an increasingly awkward and potentially vulnerable position domestically. Such activities are representative of wider geostrategic shifts occurring and will only become more pronounced as China continues to push further south into the South China Sea.

Political inertia is being slowly diminished by a new operational reality, which has given rise to increasing concern within the government. With this concern has come new questions about Malaysia’s relationship with China, but these questions will not answer themselves. They will require new and difficult answers from the Malaysian leadership, which may necessitate a reappraisal of the country’s broader approach to the disputes and to ASEAN. …