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JULY 19 — Malaysia has been an enigma when it comes to the South China Sea disputes. Despite being one of the five claimants, Kuala Lumpur has often maintained a sense of respectful silence that makes understanding its stance challenging, if not frustrating. True to form, Malaysia has yet to offer any substantive opinion on the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA’s) ruling in the Philippines-China case, beyond an official statement by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
However, a careful reading between the statement’s lines provides some insights into Malaysia’s position. The 213-word document contains five points that flows from the standard “Asean (Association of South-east Asian Nations) line” on the South China Sea.
Predictably, it calls for the “full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China (DOC) in its entirety, and the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC)”. It also affirms Malaysia’s belief that “all relevant parties can peacefully resolve disputes by full respect for diplomatic and legal processes, and relevant international law and 1982 Unclos”, referring to the United Natons Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It is noteworthy that Malaysia called not only for the DOC’s implementation, but also stressed its full and effective implementation in its entirety to remind Asean and China that the COC is an integral component of the DOC. This is not an inconsequential point, as China’s diplomatic strategy has centred on sidelining the COC by focusing on working out the DOC.
Whether intentional or otherwise, the lead sentence of the statement alludes to Malaysia’s position on the legitimacy of the tribunal by linking it to Unclos. The lead sentence reads: “The Arbitral Tribunal under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982 Unclos) issued its award on July 12, 2016.”
Given the sensitivities, Malaysian policymakers have taken to political subtlety to convey strategic messages to China. Malaysia’s cautious approach is understandable when viewed in a larger domestic and international context.
No mileage from stronger stance
First, Malaysia has taken great pains not to antagonise China — its largest trade partner since 2009. Beijing’s deep pockets have reached far into the corridors of power in Putrajaya as China emerged for the first time last year as Malaysia’s largest foreign direct investor. In the last quarter of last year, China invested US$4 billion (RM15.9 billion) to acquire stakes and assets linked to the troubled state-owned investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
Second, Malaysia’s South China Sea policy is confounded by differing views among the line agencies. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs leads with a forthright approach towards affirming Malaysia’s position in the South China Sea, which explains the strong and strident language supported by Malaysia in Asean positions. It finds support with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, which reports to the Prime Minister’s Department. However, the Ministry of Defence has taken an “arms-length” approach toward the disputes.
The disconnect between these institutions were laid bare when Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein refuted the claim that more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels had been spotted near Luconia Shoals, about 100km off Sarawak’s coast — an assertion made back in March by the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Shahidan Kassim.
Third, Malaysia does not stand to gain any strategic mileage from taking a stronger stance.
The ruling against the “nine-dash line” effectively puts Malaysia in an advantageous position, as the two most contentious points — James Shoal and Luconia Shoal — falls within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In addition, the ruling sits well with Malaysia’s confounding but long-held official position that it has no overlapping claims with China by virtue of its non-recognition of the contentious map. For the same reasons, there is no incentive for Malaysia to follow the Philippines’ test case to initiate arbitration against China.
The PCA ruling is unlikely to alter Malaysia’s South China Sea policy, which will continue to be guided and dictated by domestic imperatives and less so by external factors. However, the ruling provides the legal basis for Malaysia to stand its ground in the face of Chinese assertiveness.
At the same time, it might introduce an element of complacency among Malaysia’s policymakers in thinking that the country’s strategic goals have been achieved, especially if China backs down from its frequent incursions into Malaysia’s EEZ.
Kuala Lumpur, like Beijing, would like to sweep the South China Sea disputes under the carpet, but to do so would serve neither side’s long-term interests. In the best-case scenario, Malaysia might enjoy a temporary lull as China regroups in the wake of the crushing diplomatic and legal blow dealt by the arbitral tribunal’s ruling.
Bracing for backlash
Whatever the case, China will surely “return” to the South China Sea with added tenacity and unbending strength to defend what Beijing sees as rightfully theirs.
One commentator opined that some quarters in China have referenced the tribunal award as the “legal Opium War”, which gives a hint at what is in store for Malaysia and the region.
Malaysia should brace itself for the expected strong Chinese backlash. Notwithstanding Malaysia’s “special relations” with China, it would not be spared from China’s unleashing of its nationalistic fervour.
To be sure, Kuala Lumpur can ill-afford to continue its inconsistent approach on the South China Sea. Better coordination among line agencies would go a long way in communicating and protecting Malaysia’s interest in the area.
Fundamentally, Malaysia faces a dilemma: Reconciling its deepening relations with its largest trade partner with the uncomfortable reality that the same partner is also a growing security threat. This is an intractable political and strategic conundrum that Malaysia — and most Asean member states — have to address sooner rather than later. — TODAY
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.