Malaysia in South China Sea dispute: Friendship taken for granted?

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

By Anastasiia Shkuro

Territories become the subject of international disputes because of the wealth of natural resources they hold, or because of the strategic location they command, geopolitically. In terms of South China Sea, a bit of both factors hold true.

Malaysia is part of the fray, and has laid claims to some islands in the Spratlys. Despite the friendly environment between China and some of its ASEAN partners such as Malaysia, China decided to protect its sovereignty and increased the number of naval patrols moving along the sea since 2009. This caused anxiety of Malaysia, which is doing its best to defuse a potential flare-up in that hotspot.

Economics affects political games

Malaysia’s stake on the South China Sea dispute had been relatively mild. With the tragedy Malaysian Airlines MH370, which went missing with its 153 passengers of Chinese nationality, tension was fueled between the two countries. The grief-stricken relatives of the missing passengers complained loudly about their perceived ineptness of the Malaysian authorities, in handling the crisis. This brought some degree of ill-will that has rubbed off on the South China Sea dispute as well.

Malaysia has generally played it safe when defending its national interests, usually by conventional diplomatic channels. In the context of the South China Sea, eleven maritime features in it are the subject of disputed claims. Malaysia lays claim to eight of those maritime features, the most important being Swallow Reef, the rocks forming Erica Reef, Investigator Shoal, and Mariveles Reef.

Considering other lands, Commodore Reef (also known as Rizal Reef) is occupied by Philippines, whereas Amboyna Cay and Barque Canada Reef are considered to belong to Vietnam.

Malaysia is primarily driven by the economic potential of the areas it claims in the South China Sea. Considering the fact that Malaysia holds a prominent international position of supplying oil and gas, the loss of territories in South China Sea would be tantamount to the disappearance of natural resources. Moreover, if Malaysia were deprived of control over this area, it would also lose up to a third of its governmental budget that could be potentially acquired in the sale of gas and oil deposits.

Consequently, an unfavourable outcome for Malaysia in relation to the South China Sea dispute would not only threaten national revenues, but also threaten its unhindered access to the high seas.

Trend of peace

Particularly, at the end of the Cold War, Malaysia succeeded in getting along well with China. For instance, then Prime Minister of Malaysia Abdul Razak Hussein visited Beijing in 1974, with the diplomatic mission of being the first ASEAN country to make inroads into China.

Having become trading partners, Malaysia and China have a mutual stake in each other’s prosperity and continued wealth. Unlike other claimant countries in maritime disputes, Malaysia is “determined to ensure that the bilateral relationships remain unaffected”, as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak once said.

Malaysia’s interest in security could easily be explained with the fact of trading and shipping areas existence coming across the South China Sea. In such a way, Malaysia employs measures to minimise conflict, so as to preserve the peace in the region. Therefore, the Malaysian government has a strong stance against the use of force in resolving the dispute.

Fears and their ways of protection

Recently, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein and his Australian counterpart Marise Payne discussed possible ways to “hold China to their promise of not placing military assets in the area”.

Officials claimed that the resort to the use of force, on the part of China, could lead to a pushback from Malaysia, as it would endanger peaceful collaboration with Malaysia in other areas of their relationship.

The reason for discussions between the Malaysian and Australian defence ministers stemmed from the unexpected discovery of 100 Chinese vessels near the Luconia Shoals, in the South China Sea. Such concerns illustrate the fear of Malaysia losing national sovereignty.

This could be gleaned from a speech by Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi in November 2015, in which he outlined: “If our country is threatened or being encroached, we Malaysians should rise to defend our country”.

On the other hand, friendship is sometimes taken for granted, and there should be no astonishment with what could happen next between countries like Malaysia and China.