Malaysia's stand-off at the South China Sea

Chinese ingenuity and perseverance after being humiliated by the western powers have made them resilient to future challenges.

ASEAN had its ups and downs especially on the issue of the South China Sea dispute. - FILEpic/REUTERS | Astro Awani
THE United States of America claimed that the Covid-19 Pandemic opened new opportunities for China to coerce its presents in the South China Sea. An opportunity risen when the US itself is struggling to fight the pandemic at home, and with the Chinese seeing the light of the day through bad times after more than 70-days of lockdown at Wuhan where it all began. It was the perfect timing for China to send in the cavalry. This is nothing new in the region, China and the US had time and time again set the stage in the South China Sea to show and exert naval power to the littoral states laying claim in the maritime rich of resources. Why does China choose the perfect timing to send in coastal vassals at such tested times? Why is the US Navy and the Royal Australian Navy being quick to intercept and deter the presence of the Chinese naval ships? And why did the international media was quick to detect when uncertainties of the global economy in conundrums due to the pandemic disease, added with unverified reports of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jung-Un’s health condition that proved he is still live and well? Finally, the center of it all is a small maritime nation that had just transitioned to barely two month-old Prime Minister with his Cabinet Ministers in a mixed of new and old faces yet to be tested?

First, let us look into Malaysia’s long-standing friendship with China. Malaysia was the first member of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) to established diplomatic relations in 1974, two years after US President Richard M. Nixon with his foreign policy architect, Mr. Henry Kissinger as instrumental in bringing the US normalizing their diplomatic relations despite the on-going Vietnam War casualties the US Armed Forces were facing, and with body counts piling not in favour to the US soldiers. Henry Kissinger’s book “On China” elaborated distinctively the reason that Nixon wanted to visit China and invited Mao Zedong to the US. It was the apt timing for Nixon to begin a new chapter of US-China relations and to deter the Viet Cong’s perceived grip from both Russia and China’s communist bloc. China saw that opportunity to be close to the US rather than unpredictable Russia. Malaysia in those days had its fair share of communist threat back in her thick jungles of counter insurgency warfare, and it was at the grand strategy of Malaysia’s Second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and his reluctant politician Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman to normalised Malaysia’s relations with China, despite disagreements from the diplomatic circle in Kuala Lumpur. It is a testament that China appreciates the gesture made by our founding fathers. Fifty years after the visit in 2014, during the celebration held at Malaysia’s Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations, Chinese Ambassador Huang Huikang did not held back in praising the then Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Tun Razak’s father for the foresight he had in pursuing Malaysia’s hand of friendship to China. Even booklets and pamphlets both from Malaysia’s government and chambers of commerce of both sides were handed out during the talk held at Malaysia’s premier diplomatic training institution. One of the most memorable Chinses proverbs that was shared in the celebration translated from Mandarin to English was: “When we drink the water, we should not forget those who dug the well”, with a black and white picture of Tun Abdul Razak and a colorful one his son Dato’ Sri Najib Razak visiting Beijing 45 years apart. A sign of respect to Malaysia and the history China shared with.

When reports about Chinese coast guards started to surface in mid-April 2020, there were gaffes and sighs of saying “Here we go again”, the never-ending and pointless threats in the region. The New York Times reported on 23 April 2020, that China had harassed Malaysia’s petroleum company, Petronas supply ships servicing the West Capella, an oil exploration vessel. The report further pointed that Chinese Haiyang Dizhi 8 was accompanied by a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel that had entered Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and started to survey close to Malaysia’s West Capella’s vessel. A clear indicator of flexing China’s muscle.

This is not new for Malaysia, as it has repeatedly sent diplomatic note in the territorial disputes and summoned their Kuala Lumpur-based Ambassador to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before this, to explain the situation. However, perhaps due to the Malaysia’s government Movement Control Order (MCO), it is wised to maintain and keep the social distancing. The former Defense Minister of Malaysia and now the Foreign Affairs Minister, Dato’ Sri Hishamuddin Hussein, a blue-blood politician with tested and battled-proven of handling the MH370 disappearance and oddly enough, falls on the same year that Malaysia-China’s celebrated their fiftieth year of anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations in 2014. Dato’ Sri Hishamuddin Hussein, would have the tools and savvy in handling such a delicate situation. In his press statement, knowingly that Malaysia can do so much as a maritime nation that need balance and stability in the region has reiterated the importance of keeping an open line of communication, with all relevant parties, including and especially with the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America.

ASEAN had its ups and downs especially on the issue of the South China Sea dispute. During the 2012 ASEAN Summit held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was the first time in its then 45-years history, the summit ended without issuing a joint communiqué, even at the earlier stages of the meeting, the member nations expressed their willingness to adopt key elements of a code of conduct (COC) on ASEAN maritime issues. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have contested parts of the resource-rich South China Sea with China, and eight years later we have gone back to square one.

Kishore Mahbubani’s upcoming book about “Has China won?” which the author is hope to receive any time soon here in Japan, has argued in his video-conferencing on Thursday night at the National University of Health Singapore zoom-session discussing about the geopolitical aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic affects, “China is a 2,000 year old civilization, and has adopt and adapted to the modern world today, it is definitely going to be around a thousand year more, reassuring and refocusing on what is important to them”. With US President’s Donald Trump mis-handling of the US own Covid-19 pandemic deaths that has topped more that 80,000 and counting more, Europe and the Westphalian world are reeked and licking their wounds, so to speak. They have lost the moral high ground to dictate other nations in this trying time. A lost opportunity as well, when the world needs a leader. Is this the start of the juncture of the Asian century? Or it has already arrived? The US has lost leadership in the pandemic, with blockage of crucial protective personal equipment from the federal government to crucial states, and had governors amongst them bidding and ordering equipment from external sources such as South Korea. One example is the Governer of Maryland, Mr. Larry Hogan and the first lady Yumi Hogan, a Korean-born American buying from South Korean companies, an indicator that Asians look out to a fellow Asian even how far and beyond they are.

Comes back to our earlier question: Why does China choose the perfect timing to send in aircraft carriers and vessels and coast guards at such tested times? Why is the US Navy and the Royal Australian Navy being quick to intercept and deter the presence of the Chinese naval ships?

The simple answer to that question is there is a vacuum of power shifting and happening right under our nose. The US hasn’t the ability and perhaps the level headedness of its president to make good and sound decision, media has reported that the US like Rome is burning under Emperor Nero or in this case King Trump. Is this good for Malaysia? Yes and No. Malaysia knows and accepts that it is no superpower to negotiate a deal or even to coerce with its military capabilities. But Malaysia has the capacity and the firm stand to be heard. Malaysia may not have a large population, a large and sophisticated fighting force, but its foreign policy has always been respected. It is well known that even our Five Powers Defense Arrangement (FPDA) since 1971 is only a mere psychological deterrence with members such as the former colonial masters of the United Kingdom and her dominions, Australia and New Zealand, and Singapore and Malaysia as members. Hence, it is not a surprise but a big question when the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) decided to drop in the pond with the United States Navy (USN).

Should maritime nations such as Malaysia continue to seek balance of power from both from China and the US or, in any way seek the US assistance again in the future? Mr. Michael Pillsbury an American-expert in China wrote in his book: “The Hundred Year Marathon” on why China is it in the long run and why the US is losing. For Mr. Pillsbury, it took him a bitter pill to swallow, the US has lost its grip when it opened to China and let in thousands of Chinese students to American universities and even the Chinese President, Mr. Xi Jinping has benefitted when he was an exchange at the University of Iowa in 1985. Chinese ingenuity and perseverance after being humiliated by the western powers have made them resilient to future challenges, which ASEAN nations such as Malaysia should be prepared to haul it in the long run, when that day comes, or it has already arrived.

* Afdal Izal Md Hashim is a Researcher on Asia Pacific Security with focus on Maritime Security and the balancing of superpowers in Southeast Asia specifically in the South China Sea

**He is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of International Relations, International University of Japan, Niigata, Japan.

*** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.