China’s expansion in the South China Sea: should Malaysia be worried? — Voon Zhen Yi

MAY 16 — In the past few days, tensions once again resurfaced in the South China Sea surrounding the disputed Spratly Islands, of which several countries — namely Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei — contest.

Last Tuesday, it was revealed that the United States Navy was considering sending ships and aircraft close to the disputed region, much to the displeasure of Beijing. Reuters reported that a US official said that the White House is “considering how to demonstrate freedom of navigation in an area that is critical to world trade”. China has maintained that it is committed to maintaining the peace and keeping free movements of the seas open. China claims the entire area as their own and that their presence on these islands are mainly for civilian purposes, with the military merely providing security. Although it is difficult to fully determine the true nature of such activities, interest by nations involved in staking a claim in the Spratly’s is predictably to secure oil reserves and fisheries.

The intelligence community is observing the construction of a major runway on one of the disputed areas at Fiery Cross Reef. The 3,000-metre runway, just 500 kilometres off the coast of Sabah, will enable China to accommodate its Xian H-6 strategic bomber, which has a strike range of 6,000 kilometres. This puts every capital city in South East Asia within range. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force can even go as far as the coast of Australia. This gives China significant tactical advantage over all of its regional neighbours.

Such military facilities also makes it feasible for China to launch ground campaigns in South East Asia, as such outposts can serve as staging areas necessary for logistical needs, such as refuelling ships and storage of supplies for an extended campaign, similar to how the British used the Ascension Islands during the Falkland War. Satellite images show the construction of sea ports which may be capable of accommodating dozens of PLA Navy destroyers, frigates and other naval vessels.

Why set up a military installation and a need for such striking capability? As with any nation with big budgets and spending capability, China would typically want to have several foreign policy options on the table, from bilateral options to military, just in case. China’s foreign policy has always been both diplomatic and aggressive, evident from its infrastructure collaborations such as the construction of the Second Penang Bridge and the development of Kuantan Port, but at the same time sailing its navy and landing troops at James Shoal, a disputed territory administered by Malaysia just 80 kilometres off Sarawak.

These collaborations along with various other trade agreements with Malaysia give Beijing political leverage over Putrajaya, while aggressive manoeuvres reinforce the message of China’s dominance and bargaining power in this region. China has similar bargaining chips with possibly every other nation and these military installations further reinforce the message that China is capable of protecting its interest.

What this means to Malaysia depends very much on which side it is aligned to, either China or the United States, both of which Malaysia has close bilateral relations with. Our traditional response with China is typically to downplay and settle disagreements behind closed doors, a strategy which has worked quite well much to the pleasure of Beijing as Malaysia has not been seen to be going against China, at least not in the public eye. On the other hand, Malaysia’s relation with the US, though temperamental in the past, has been lukewarm in recent times. Just last Monday, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, led by USS Carl Vinson conducted a joint military exercise with the Malaysian military. Though seemingly torn in the middle, Malaysia is in a unique position as it is able to play both sides. Being China’s 3rd largest trading partner in Asia and one of US’s main moderate Muslim ally in the region, Malaysia has its own cards to play as an effective fence-sitter between the two giants.

However, should Malaysia swing more towards the US, it can expect China to be more aggressive as it will attempt to bring Malaysia back within its influence. Swing towards China, and Malaysia could face pressures in a similar fashion with Washington, perhaps even losing out on opportunities such as being joint signatories with the US in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, of which Malaysia and the US are currently negotiating. Malaysia does not have any free trade agreements with the US yet. In such a position, the wisest strategy is to remain neutral and play both sides, which is exactly what Putrajaya is doing.

Still, Malaysia is not completely helpless in the Spratly’s. It has a 1,367-metre long runway on Pulau Layang-Layang (Swallow Reef) capable of accommodating Hercules C-130 and C-235 aircrafts. This military capability serves as a deterrent. Other states contesting the Spratly’s such as the Philippines too has an airfield on Pag-asa Island, also capable of handling C-130s but is in dire need of repairs, while Taiwan has a military airstrip on Taiping Island.

Despite the safeguards, there is really nothing much Malaysia can do should China opt to confront Malaysia with military force as China’s military might is far too strong. However, this is unlikely to happen and conflicts in the region will only be limited to minor standoffs between the navies of China and other disputing nations, trying to intimidate one another, unlikely to escalate to the point of loss of life. In today’s world, open conflicts leading to war is often avoided, as regional instability erodes investor confidence and business prospects, which would ultimately cause all parties to be worse off. China has too much vested economic interest in all the nations involved in the Spratly’s disputes, and it is safe to say that neither side would want to take matters beyond the point of breaking diplomatic ties at the expense of trade.

In a game of chess where open armed conflict is not an option in today’s world, indirect measures through intimidations and shows of force are key to influencing foreign policy with your neighbours.

On its own, Malaysia can easily be bullied by superpowers like China, US or even Russia, evident from Malaysia’s reluctance to lay blame for the downing of MH17. Silent, with her hands tied, Malaysia will always be treated as bystanders on the world stage, unable to effect change. This is not a quality a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council should have. Malaysia needs to take strong affirmative action or otherwise be considered irrelevant.

A possible solution is for Asean to come up with a joint military pact based on mutual regional security, including potential threats of the future. Such a stand in solidarity can act as a significant deterrent to future aggressive postures from foreign sources to the region. Though the South East Asian nations each have territorial disputes with one another over the islands, they have never turned such disagreements into military confrontations. On the other hand, China has consistent run-ins with nations disputing the Spratly’s and Paracel’s, confrontations which have often times been tense. Therefore, it should be in the mutual interest of countries antagonised by China to cooperate with one another under a form of military alliance.

However, Beijing should not mistaken such a pact to be an escalation of hostilities nor a measure against China per se, but understand Asean’s aspiration to be taken seriously and not be pushed around. An Asean-based military pact will put the region in a better position to deal with China and other superpowers on fairer terms.

Malaysia’s chairmanship of Asean this year puts it in the best position to motion for such an Asean-based military pact as Malaysia is seen as a neutral party and a genuine friend in Beijing’s eyes. Perhaps in addition to the prosperity-driven AEC, Malaysian can be the catalyst for lasting peace and security in the region and be remembered for giving members of Asean the strength and confidence it needs to stand up to giants like the US and China. But the clock is ticking, as Malaysia’s Asean chairmanship will expire by coming December.

* Voon Zhen Yi is a research analyst with the Centre of Public Policy Studies (CPPS).

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.