In Asean Chair, Malaysia Cringes on South China Sea

A curious silence has fallen on the Malaysian government when it comes to guarding its territory and sea rights in the South China Sea.

This week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit was the ideal time for Malaysia to take a lead, or at least do more than waffle about China’s claims to almost the whole sea and its resources. It didn’t do so despite the fact that Malaysia took over the revolving chairmanship of Asean for 2015 and presumably could have been expected to show some leadership on the issue.

“We need to peacefully manage differences closer to home, including overlapping maritime claims, without increasing tensions," Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said in a prepared statement. "Recent developments have raised concerns about the South China Sea — and given the importance of its sea lanes to international trade, it is natural that almost any occurrence there will attract global attention. Asean must address these developments in a proactive, but also in a positive and constructive, way."

Although Malaysia is, along with Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, one of the four nations most directly subject to claims that go within a few miles of their coasts, it appeared to be about as willing as China’s tiny landlocked neighbor Laos to offend Beijing by joining Vietnam and the Philippines in taking a tougher line.

Petronas Carigali, the exploration and production subsidiary of Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas, has extensive operations in the South China Sea that are subject to possible China claims, including 13 oil and gas fields in which 30 platforms operate.

The Malaysian cringe is regarded as all the more disappointing by its maritime neighbors because it comes at a time, for instance, when Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is beginning to focus aggressively on his nation’s maritime role. While Indonesia as yet has no specific dispute with China over islands, China’s nine-dash line covers an area that includes at least part of a yet-to-be exploited gas field off the Natuna islands, and fishing rights well within Indonesia’s economic exclusion zone. Indeed, China’s claims, as per its maps, deny Indonesia’s archipelagic status and thus specific rights under the Law of the Sea.

Also contrast the Najib stance with the comments of Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who noted that China is “clearly and quickly advancing” its reclamations and that it is poised to “consolidate de facto control” of the South China Sea. “Is it not time for Asean to say to our northern neighbor that what it is doing is wrong and that the massive reclamations must be immediately stopped?” del Rosario asked. “On this most important issue, is it not time for Asean to finally stand up for what is right?”

The official goal of Malaysia’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organization, is ostensibly to protect and further the interests of the Malay people. There is little doubt that domestically it does so, even if the benefits are concentrated on party leaders and members, and pro-Malay policies conflict with the goal of strengthening the nation as a whole.

It is difficult to believe that the Malay leadership seriously believes that Malaysia is exempt from China’s designs on the whole sea, one traditionally more ethnically Malay (in the broadest sense) than Chinese. In classic divide-and-rule fashion Beijing has simply focused on pursuing Vietnam and the Philippines first.

Various reasons could be ascribed for Kuala Lumpur’s weak-kneed policy, none very honorable. The first may be a preference for economic and trade links to China that would be rattled by confrontation. But there is also a lingering concern that the Chinese will continue to make noises about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in which Chinese lost far more passengers than any other country. The second and more durable reason is that the Malay leadership fears that if it adopts a higher profile on the sea issue, China will retaliate by raising the issue of domestic discrimination against non-Malays, the Chinese in particular.

Malaysian Chinese (and others) have legitimate grievances that if addressed would strengthen the fabric of the nation as well as remove an obstacle to defending the integrity of its boundaries. But doing so would threaten UMNO’s hold and hence the massive financial benefits which flow to and through it.

As it was, at the KL meeting ajib could merely note the attention now given to China’s reclamation projects in the sea, making flat land out of what were reefs and shoals. He urged agreement on a code of conduct for the sea.

But this has been on the agenda for a decade as China stalls or plays off Asean members against each other. In any case, the reclamations are merely one part of a massive forward push by China to assert its claim to all territory within its 9-dash line, which encompassed not only islands actually occupied by Malaysia but the seabed that is a major source of Malaysian oil and gas production.

The Asean states subject to China’s sea claims cannot reasonably expect the other members to be so concerned. Either they just want good relations with China or they have other issues, such as China’s tacit support for separatists in the Kokang border region of Burma's Shan state. But unless the four directly threatened can band together, and get at least moral support from Indonesia, China’s will continue the expansion begun under the Qing dynasty when its territory doubled and more “barbarians” were brought under its rule.