Malaysia Abdicates its Role as ASEAN Leader

The Malaysian government, the 2015 leader of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, seems to believe that it has found a new way of protecting its territory against Chinese claims to almost all the sea and islands of the South China Sea: kowtow to China at every opportunity.

In the past few days Putrajaya has banned two high profile pro-democracy figures from Hong Kong from entering Malaysia to attend meetings. It has even done so not in the name of protecting Malaysia’s security from dangerous foreign radicals, but specifically in order not to offend China.

The decision to ban the two is especially perplexing because of Malaysia’s assumption of the ASEAN leadership, which has backed away from expressing concern over China’s growing encroachments on the waters of the South China Sea despite the need of constituent nations including the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei for a role in protecting their interests. Malaysia appears unlikely to play a leadership role in their behalf, or any other matters requiring standing up to China.

The action to refuse entry by the administration of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has not only exposed yet again Malaysia’s claims to being an open and democratic society but done so by banning two Chinese nationals holding Hong Kong Chinese passports. One is a Legislative Councilor elected by popular vote.

The moves came immediately prior to the meeting in Singapore of the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies at which top brass and defense ministers from the US and China as well as regional countries meet to exchange views on regional defense issues. With the United States -- and Najib's putative friend President Barack Obama -- pushing for concerted actionto slow China's encroachments on the South China Sea -- Najib's timidity over the ban is especially a slap in the face of the US.

This year’s meeting is viewed as especially significant given China’s island-building program in the sea and its attacks on the US for daring to overfly territory which only China deems to be its own, a claim not accepted internationally, least of all by neighbors such as Malaysia. Speakers include US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chinese PLA deputy chief of staff Sun Jianguo.

It comes at a time when China is expanding its defense goals to include trans-theater operations and the protection of its nationals and [ominously] assets overseas. The decision to ban the two is especially perplexing because this year Malaysia assumed the leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has backed away from expressing concern over China’s growing encroachments on the waters of the South China Sea but which should play a role in protecting the interests of its constituent nations.

The Singapore meeting will be followed by the annual conference June 1-3 in Kuala Lumpur of Malaysia’s semi-official Institute for Strategic & International Studies [ISIS] at which Chinese delegates will be among the speakers. The first Hong Konger to be banned from the ISIS conference was Joshua Wong, the baby-faced, mop-haired but highly articulate 18-year-old student leader. Wong was in the forefront of Hong Kong’s massive Occupy Central movement last year calling for more democracy and the protection of Hong Kong’s autonomy and identity against Beijing intrusion.

Wong was to have attended talks in Penang, Ipoh and Johor on the Tiananmen massacre, culminating in a meeting in Kuala Lumpur on May 29 organized by the Working Committee for the 29th anniversary of June 4. Legislator Leung Kwok-hung, often known as Long Hair, was to have attended the KL meeting but he too was then barred from entry.

At least the two will come to no harm from this rebuff, unlike the Muslim Uighurs who were denied asylum and deported to China in 2012 in an even more outrageous kowtow to Beijing.

The government, led by the United Malays National Organization, is increasingly regarded by neighbors as notorious for its lack of principle whether in matters of money-making or national sovereignty.

Its surrenders to Beijing may even be claimed a success by its diplomats in that China has yet to use force against it in the South China Sea – unlike Vietnam and the Philippines. It has oil and gas rigs, and even an airstrip and dive resort on Layang-Layang reef, territory claimed by China. But it is foolish to believe that can remain the case forever. Meanwhile the Malaysians have become an essential tool for China in its efforts to divide not only Asean but the other littoral states of the South China Sea. Taking the easy way out now is simply storing up more trouble for the future.

At the same time, Malaysia tries to remain to some extent shielded by US power by providing facilities to the US armed forces. Such a two-faced approach does not fool the Chinese but is yet another self-delusion by the UMNO led government. All this is intended among other things to keep Beijing from speaking up for ethnic Chinese in Malaysia who have not particular love of the mainland but [like increasing numbers of Malays] increasingly resent the kleptocratic UMNO elite and its preference for riches over national interest.