China is winning the battle over ownership of the South China Sea. Blatant aggression is succeeding here as surely as it did for Putin in Crimea – and with far less historical, ethnic or geographical justification.
One obvious illustration is the impunity with which China could sink a Vietnamese fishing boat as it proceeded with seizing an islet in the waters off Vietnam’s central coast and well within what to any neutral observer is clearly Vietnam’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
But a less-noticed illustration was the visit of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to China, organized to mark the 40th anniversary of Malaysia’s diplomatic recognition of the PRC – when Najib’s father Tun Razak was prime minister.
Even allowing for all the superficial bonhomie required for such celebrations, Najib went out of his way to avoid the one issue that is not only now on the international agenda but goes to the heart of Malaysia’s very existence: China’s claims to all of the sea and its islands rocks and shoals to within a few miles of the coast of the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
The recent tensions over flight MH 370 got a brief mention but that's not the big issue for the future. Instead, Najib fawned on his hosts and tweeted how he was “touched by the wonderful hospitality” he had received.
This is a lesson learned to their distress by Vietnam’s leaders, who thought they could appease Beijing until China towed its US$1 billion drill ship virtually onto Vietnam’s doorstep with an armada of escort vessels that have fought off all eviction attempts.
Malaysia’s leaders like to imagine that by keeping a low profile and ignoring China’s moves against the Philippines and Vietnam it can stay out of trouble with China. Beijing will of course respond by doing little to alarm the Malaysians– yet. Now China has plans to substantially expand its already significant installation in the Spratlys’ Fiery Cross Reef to include an airstrip and seaport. It is considered to be a further step in China’s proclamation of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross Reef is clearly in Philippine waters.
For China, Najib is the perfect leader as far as their plans for gradual implementation of the nine-dash line by which China claims a sea whose littoral is largely inhabited by the people of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. The history of such “barbarian” peoples does not count as far as the Han race-based agenda is concerned.
At a time when Vietnam and the Philippines are trying to cooperate to defend their waters against Han expansionism, Malaysia is providing the necessary exception, allowing China to proceed with its divide-and-rule tactics. Note too how Malaysia’s weak-willed attitude is allowing China to take the diplomatic offensive even while it pursues aggressive tactics on the water, trying to line up some Asean states against what Beijing has the temerity to describe as “provocation by Vietnam.”
It is not as though China has in any way gone silent on its claims to Malaysian waters as well as all the islands in the Spratly group. In the past it has accused Malaysia of stealing hydrocarbon resources off the Borneo coast which China claims are its own.
In the past year China has made its future intentions clear by conducting naval exercises in the vicinity of the James shoal which lies some 50 nautical miles off the Sarawak coast but 1,000 from the coast of China. According to Reuters: “China’s state media on January 26 showed hundreds of Chinese sailors standing to attention on a warship’s deck, backed by two destroyers and a helicopter which was reported to be at the James shoal.”
Rather than admit this obviously aggressive show of force, Malaysia’s navy chief denied that the Chinese had been anywhere near the shoal. Possibly he was ignorant of the facts. More likely he was taking the path of least resistance – denial.
Malaysia has surely been perturbed that nice words and conciliatory messages have done nothing to stop China’s advance. It has responded by edging a little closer to the US, as seen in the recent Obama visit. Defense cooperation with the US, a long-term reality, has been stepped up and Malaysia is building up naval capability in its eastern states. But so long as it does not openly and firmly reject China’s claims to Malaysian EEZ waters, and so long as it does not show solidarity with the Philippines and Vietnam, China will be happy to go on quietly creating new facts, of turning what for millennia has been a (generic) Malay sea into a Chinese lake.
Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization has long proclaimed itself the guardian of the Malay race and nation. But this now seems to focus on discriminating against non-Malays rather than protecting Malaysia’s vital interests. It is as though UMNO does not really believe East Malaysia, with its large non-Muslim and non-Malay indigenous populations, is really part of Malaysia. Chinese designs focus on Sabah's and Sarawak's offshore waters, not those of peninsular Malaysia.
Yet if China controls the sea between the two wings of the nation, the prospects for Malaysia surviving as a single entity for many more decades appear remote. China’s claims are, by chance more than design, a wedge with major implications for the boundaries of maritime Southeast Asia created during or at the close of the colonial period.