Domestic Politics Impel Malaysia into South China Sea Squabble

The demands of domestic politics may be impelling Malaysia to end its softly-softly approach to China’s claims on the seas off the coasts of Sabah and Sarawak. Sabah was once part of the sultanate of Brunei which included the Sulu archipelago and southern Palawan, facts of history which China, a latecomer to trade and navigation in the southern sea, refuses to face.

Although the Malaysian coast is thousands of kilometers from China, Beijing’s claims stretch to within about 100 kilometers of its two eastern states on the north side of Borneo Island. Hitherto Malaysia has been timid in its refusal to take public issue with China, partly no doubt for economic reasons. China is Malaysia’s second-biggest export partner after Singapore. But the government capital of Putrajaya also may fear that Beijing will retaliate by poking its nose into Malaysia’s domestic politics on the side of the ethnic Chinese population – a possibility that raised its head on Sept. 25 when the Chinese ambassador, Huang Huikang, walked to the center of the Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur to cool off rising racial tensions.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has been under such pressure from the 1MDB scandal and divisions within the United Malays National Organization, his base, that he has been reluctant to want to speak out. His predecessor, former PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was too much the diplomat to say anything while Mahathir Mohamad was too concerned with attacking the west to worry about a rising China’s territorial claims.

Additionally for many Malaysians, the sea issue is a little remote. Power, population and interests are concentrated on the Malay Peninsula, whose offshore assets are just beyond the farthest Chinese claims as delineated by the nine-dash-line maps that are being challenged in an arbitration court in The Hague. The Borneo states were only attached in 1963 and are not just distant geographically but socially and ethnically, with more diversity and fewer sharp divides than on the peninsula.

But without the two states the UMNO-dominated Barisan coalition would have no majority in parliament. This is partly because of a mix of gerrymandering with some seats in Sabah having constituencies with barely one sixth of the urban ones around Kuala Lumpur, and partly by keeping local parties on-side with jobs and projects while not interfering much with local sensibilities.

However the adhesion of the two states to the federation, originally devised by the British as a geopolitical engineering project to facilitate decolonization, is not one which is guaranteed a permanent life. The last things that Malaysia now needs are two oil and gas producing states which feel the government, by failing to confront China over the sea or protect local fisherman from Chinese piracy, may look for other ways of protecting their interests. Nor, alternatively, does it want to see an avalanche of Chinese money to buy off local politicians and make the states de facto dependencies of China, not Kuala Lumpur.

This explains why the strongest statement on China’s sea claims yet made by a senior Malaysian government figure was by the deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on a visit to Sabah. He was speaking at the congress of Parti Bersatu Sabah, the second largest party in Sabah and a member of the Barisan government at state and federal levels.

“To claim this part of the South China Sea as theirs due to historical narrative is invalid,” Zahid was reported saying, referring to a “regional superpower” without directly mentioning China. “We have a country that is building 3km-long airstrips and port facilities, supposedly for its coast guard,” Zahid said. “Does this make sense when that country’s mainland is more than 3,000 km away?” he asked rhetorically.

Malaysia has long hedged it bets by quietly having close military ties with the US but may finally be being shamed into speaking up by the Philippine challenge to China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, by the firm stance of Vietnam and by the noises from Indonesia about protecting its sea and archipelago from Chinese broad-brush claims which appear to include the waters off its Natuna islands.

In June Malaysia protested the presence of a Chinese coastguard vessel off shoals just 150 kilometers from the Sabah coast and thus well within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.

As the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Malaysia could have pushed for a stronger stance by the group regardless of the effective veto that Cambodia, almost a Chinese satellite, has on overt criticisms of China. Instead ASEAN has plodded along with endless and meaningless talks on establishing a code of conduct for sea claimants. This diplomatic charade has enabled China in particular to move ahead and create “facts” in the form of artificial islands.

Meanwhile China claims that it has been showing restraint by not occupying the islets currently possessed by Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. Its attitudes are not driven by actual history or even necessarily by economic and strategic interests. Ultimately they derive from the racist assumptions about Chinese superiority, even now reflected in Chinese genetic studies and Nazi-style emphasis on blood. The Malays, Filipinos, Vietnamese are, as ever, “barbarians.” lesser breeds.

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