Malaysia openly opposes China
Malaysia-China relations are becoming tense after the Chinese aircraft illegally violated Malaysia’s airspace.
At the end of May, Malaysia said 16 Chinese aircraft were operating illegally just 60 nautical miles from the Luconia Shoals in the South China Sea, which Malaysia calls Beting Patinggi Ali. Kuala Lumpur administers the shoals, but Beijing also claims the feature. Kuala Lumpur considers the event “a threat to national sovereignty and aviation safety.”
Information from Kuala Lumpur also said that, when detected by Malaysian control forces, the Chinese planes were clearly informed that China had violated Malaysian airspace. However, the planes did not respond. This behavior does not seem to respect the sovereignty of the territories of Malaysia.
On June 1, Malaysia’s foreign minister said that the country would hand over a note to protest against Beijing and summon the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia to explain the incident that Malaysia considers China’s “infringement” of Malaysian airspace.
Malaysia’s silent foreign policy
Malaysia is a party directly involved in the South China Sea dispute with China. Besides claiming part of the Truong Sa (Spratlys), Malaysia has a dispute over the Luconia Shoal off Sarawak, which is rich in hydrocarbon and marine resources.
Although in the past time, Malaysia has been threatened and magnanimous by Chinese forces many times, Malaysia has persisted in its “silent diplomacy,” that is, Malaysia had not officially spoken out to protest China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, in order to gain economic benefits with this giant country.
According to Malaysian experts, China is the largest trading partner and plays an important role in Malaysia’s economic recovery. During an online meeting in May 2021, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin that China is willing to deepen cooperation with Malaysia in investment, manufacturing, agriculture, and maritime infrastructure. Malaysia is also one of the first countries to receive priority access to China’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Although, Malaysian authorities also said that from 2016-2019, the coast guard and Chinese navy ships intruded into Malaysian waters 89 times. Not to mention the activities of China’s illegal fishing fleets in Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China’s coast guard is reported to have monitored the activities of the oil drilling vessel West Capella of Petronas in 2020.
Currently, China is constantly increasing its military presence in the South China Sea in the context of territorial disputes with some Southeast Asian neighbors, including Vietnam. In April 2021, China commissioned three advanced destroyers, including a Type 075 amphibious assault ship, at the country’s largest naval base in Hainan province. That fuels speculation that China could deploy its largest amphibious assault ship, with a capacity of about 30 helicopters and hundreds of troops, to the South China Sea.
In addition, according to the Indonesian air force, foreign aircraft violated the country’s airspace 498 times in the year to May 17, a tenfold increase from 2014 (2). These foreign planes are mainly Chinese.
Previously, in March 2021, the Philippines said that China had deployed 220 paramilitary and fishing boats around Whitsun Reef which Manila said is within Manila’s territorial waters in the South China Sea. Manila and Beijing have also been embroiled in a protracted war of words over the issue. In April, Washington warned that any armed attack on the Philippines would force the United States to support its ally under a decades-old treaty between the two countries.
By officially voicing this objection, it seems that Malaysia has abandoned its decades-long “silent diplomacy” with China when openly criticizing and directly challenging Beijing’s expansionist moves in the South China Sea. Different from the “drastic claim” stance of Vietnam and the Philippines, Malaysia pursues a strategy of separating economic relations with China from disputes, even amid repeated flare-ups with China related to oil and gas exploration off Sarawak (in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone but Beijing considers it to be within its “nine-dash line” claim).
This development shows that Malaysia’s “silent diplomacy” has not been effective in the face of Beijing’s ambition to expand and invade the territory. The “silent diplomacy” is actually Malaysia’s “smartness” when ignoring ASEAN’s interests, but only focusing on its own. Perhaps Malaysia thinks that, with its friendliness, China will not threaten Malaysia’s resource-rich areas of the South China Sea? China’s recent aggressive action is the most obvious answer for Malaysia. Although not long ago, the Malaysian Foreign Minister also openly called Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi “the eldest brother” (3), which did not help to stop China’s malice and aggression in the South China Sea.
Will Malaysia change its South China Sea policy?
With the public act of denouncing China like this time, will Malaysia “wake up” before China?
Recently, a Malaysian expert said that Malaysia will not be able to end its “closeness” with China. There are at least four areas where China and Malaysia can continue to cooperate, namely traditional Chinese medicine, vaccination, using the renminbi as the payment unit in bilateral trade relations, and the possibility of signing a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had hoped for, ideally by the end of 2021. (4)
Collin Koh, an expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (Singapore), said that China’s move to mobilize aircraft to fly near Luconia Shoal may be to deter the claimants: “This incident is more likely to happen intended to project military might, as opposed to Malaysia’s notoriously weak and under-resourced air force. China may want to show that it is better equipped to increase its dominance in the area.”
Mr. Koh said: “With the global shortage of vaccines, China has become an important source of vaccines for Malaysia. Malaysia has a lot of incentive to maintain a strong and cordial relationship with China and try not to unnecessarily sway the boat.”
Koh also noted that Beijing’s “show of power in the South China Sea” is likely to continue, despite the scrutiny of its neighbors and others such as the United States, which appear keen to rally allies against Beijing’s assertive actions: “With economic recovery and growing military power, it is clear that China is relatively comfortable and confident about its current position in the South China Sea. China can gradually reduce the political will of its geopolitical rivals.”
Lessons for Vietnam
The tension between Malaysia and China this time will be a good lesson for Vietnamese policymakers, especially on the South China Sea issue. In 2011, when the Chinese ship cut the probe cable of Binh Minh 02 ship, the deputy director of the Central Commission on Propaganda and Education at that time, Mr. Nguyen The Ky, went around to “propaganda” for this event. In a speech that lasted more than two hours, with the request not to be recorded, videotaped, or disseminated outside, Mr. Nguyen The Ky said China’s “sophisticated plan” when choosing the right time to cut the cable. At the right time, the only spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam at that time was Ms. Nguyen Phuong Nga, who was on holiday for the weekend, and Vietnam was “cut off her tongue” so she could not speak out against China right away. It took a few days after the cable was cut, after the end of the weekend, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam could protest. But, just an hour later, the Chinese Ambassador to Hanoi immediately responded to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson. That shows how carefully China has prepared the plan.
However, it is even more remarkable that Mr. Nguyen The Ky said that although China is so “tricky,” “Our Party still decided to raise the relationship with China to a new height in order to make clear forcing China not to make it difficult for us.” It was the cowardly mentality of Mac Dang Dung who tied himself to his knees in front of the Chinese envoy like that, which made Beijing boldly encroach on the HD 981 rig event in 2014.
The story of Malaysia, the Philippines of Duterte, and of Vietnam itself has shown the lesson that it is impossible to compromise, cowardly, and kneel before Beijing and can expect Beijing to leave it alone. Only face-to-face, building its own defense power, and forging good relationships with alliances can protect the country against the invading power of the northern power.