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.