Malaysia changing approach towards South China Sea issue

Malaysia’s policy towards the South China Sea’s issue has popularly been described as a form of ‘quiet diplomacy’ or ‘play it safe’ approach by various commentators. This observation is based upon the largely zero public official documentation of exactly what the country’s stance is. The country’s Foreign Ministry has also avoided making any statements to the issue, which is deemed sensitive.

Though, if one would examine closely the trend from the second to the beginning of third quarter of 2015 – there has been a slight change in Malaysia’s trajectory over the South China Sea issue. Though, the strong trademark of country’s polite diplomacy remains, Malaysia has begun voicing its concerns slowly on the development that is taking place.

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In May 2015, Malaysian Defense Minister together with two other ASEAN Defense Ministers (Singapore, Cambodia and Indonesia) for the first time signaled a united stand and demanded a unified action to peacefully tackle long-standing territorial conflicts in the South China Sea. The Malaysian Defense Minister has stated that diplomacy as the best solutions or otherwise “the issue could certainly escalate into one of the deadliest conflicts in time, if not history”. This stands in contrast to his response back in 2014 – where he casually suggest that the Chinese “can patrol every day, but if their intention is not to go to war” it would be less of concern.

In June 2015, Shahidan Kassim, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, flatly commented in his facebook account on a recent Chinese navy intrusion in Sarawak waters. He argued the incident was not a case of overlapping claims but one of a foreign ship intruding into Malaysia’s waters.

The latest is in August 2015, during the launching of ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian Foreign Minister made an inaugural speech on the issue expressing concerns on recent activities in the area, which can threaten peace and security. Anifah Aman also stated that while all efforts were taken to finalize the Code of Conduct (CoC), recent developments in the area had raised tension, eroded trust and confidence among the interested parties. He also further urged other ASEAN countries affected by the issue to speak out and put forward their views on matters relating to the South China Sea.

This development is interesting for two reasons. Firstly there has been largely zero Malaysian Cabinet Ministers making firm statements as highlighted above on SCS prior to this. Malaysia traditionally views China as a strong partner both politically and economically. Hence, the voicing of concerns by its cabinet ministers seems to show that there is growing discontent on China’s SCS policy in Malaysia’s corridor of power.

Secondly, the voicing of Malaysia as the current ASEAN chairman may also suggest that the country is making the best use of its position to push towards a diplomatically robust approach for the country and ASEAN against China SCS policy. This is a shift to its previously described ‘Quiet Diplomacy’.

On a more strategic front, it has also been reported that Malaysia is increasing its military training with regional powers such as the United States on South China Sea waters. The recent naval exercise involving US Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group, May 2015 is one of such. Similarly, the country has in early 2015 mulled on the building of new naval base close to the South China Sea with an air defense system.

It is interesting to watch Malaysian policy on SCS over the remaining third and fourth quarter of 2015 and to analyze how Malaysian will further define its policy on this contentious issue. Though the recent development suggest that the days of ‘Quiet Diplomacy’ may soon be replaced with a more proactive approach (both diplomacy and mild strategic deterrent) in dealing with the South China Sea problem.

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