South China Sea and Malaysia
Malaysia has preferred to rely on diplomacy and consensus that avoids embarrassing other states in addressing its maritime disputes in the SCS. The ground work for this modus operandi was developed during Tun Mahathir’s tenure as Prime Minister. After securing Malaysia’s claim on three Spratly islands through military occupation, Mahathir’s administration focused greater diplomatic efforts to get all disputing parties including China to consult with each other; using the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a main platform for these discussions. After Mahathir’s retirement in 2003, these policies were adapted with little innovation by his successors including the current Prime Minister, Dato’ Sri Haji Mohammad Najib.
Malaysia’s traditional South China Sea position under the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak might be best summed up as a “playing it safe” approach designed to preserve its interests as well as to manage its close ties with China.
Discussion of renaming parts of the South China Sea is far from something new in the region. Indeed, if Malaysia does choose to rename its part of the South China Sea, it would also be just the latest in a succession of such designations we have witnessed among Southeast Asian states. The two other main Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam, already call the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea and the East Sea respectively. And, last year, Indonesia, which is technically not a South China Sea claimant but is nonetheless an interested party, announced that it would now call it the North Natuna Sea.
Malaysia’s real challenge which such discussions of new ideas often leave out: though it may be on firm ground with legal moves like these, the country’s military capabilities remain quite limited, and the Najib government would be hesitant to take moves like significantly restrict economic activity with Beijing.
Aware that their navy and air force are underequipped, Malaysia’s military planners have developed several plans to upgrade old platforms and acquire new ones in recent years. However, military spending has never been prioritized in the government budget, and most plans for force modernization have been repeatedly delayed or cancelled. The declining trend in Malaysia’s defense outlay was halted in 2013. That year, Malaysia was shocked when China staged a naval exercise around James Shoal, a 72-foot deep underwater bank lying 55 nautical miles (nm) off the Malaysian Borneo coast. It was also in 2013 that China Coast Guard ships started to anchor at South Luconia Shoal, an oil-rich area lying 70 nm off Borneo. Each of Malaysia’s armed services face challenges in securing their areas of Malaysia’s claimed maritime territory with their current assets.
Since returning to power after his stunning election victory in May 2018, the 93–year–old Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has made a series of comments reflective of weaker states’ views of the evolving Asian order in the Trump–Xi era. These include a firmer stance on the South China Sea disputes, Malaysia’s relations with the Asian powers (especially concerning the controversial China–backed infrastructure projects and Japan’s regional role), as well as the future of multilateral trading arrangements.
Judging from Mahathir’s recent remarks, as well as his policies during his first premiership from 1981–2003 (“Mahathir 1.0”), three elements can be identified as the core constituents of the emerging “Mahathir Doctrine”:
· The South China Sea should be a sea of cooperation, connectivity, and community–building, not confrontation or conflict.
· Diplomatic consultations, not military swaggering, are the key to managing and resolving any inter–state disputes in East Asia and elsewhere.
· While all countries, big and small, are welcome to play a constructive role in the widening East Asia community building via integration and creation of bigger markets, weaker states’ interests must be respected, protected, and fulfilled.