As Beijing flexes muscles in South China Sea, Malaysia eyes harder response

Spotting a large vessel
off the coast of Sarawak state in March, officers on a Malaysian
patrol boat were shocked when it steamed towards them at high
speed, blaring its horn before veering off to reveal “Chinese
Coast Guard” emblazoned on its side.

According to an officer from the Malaysian Maritime
Enforcement Agency (MMEA), Chinese Coast Guard vessels have
been sighted several times before around the South Luconia
Shoals, off the oil-rich town of Miri. But such an aggressive
encounter was a first.

“To us, it looked like an attempt to charge at our boat,
possibly to intimidate,” said the officer, who was not
authorised to speak publicly but showed Reuters a video of the
previously unreported incident.

Spurred by the incident and the appearance of some 100
Chinese fishing vessels in the area around the time, some in
Malaysia are hardening the nation’s previously muted responses
towards their powerful neighbour China.

One senior minister said Malaysia must now stand up against
such maritime incursions as China flexes its muscles along
dozens of disputed reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

China’s growing assertiveness has already alarmed the
Philippines, Vietnam and other claimants. It has also increased
U.S.-China tensions, with the two heavyweights trading
accusations of militarising the vital waterways through which
some $5 trillion in trade passes each year.

But heralding its “special relationship” with China, and
heavily reliant on trade and investment, Malaysia’s previous
responses to China’s activity in the region have been described
by Western diplomats as “low-key”.

It downplayed two naval exercises conducted by China in 2013
and 2014 at James Shoal, less than 50 nautical miles off
Sarawak. And in 2015, concerns raised by Malaysian fishermen in
Miri about alleged bullying by armed men aboard Chinese Coast
Guard vessels were largely ignored.

FISHING FRACAS

But when scores of Chinese fishing boats were spotted in
March encroaching near South Luconia Shoals, a rich fishing
ground south of the disputed Spratly Islands, Malaysia sent its
navy and uncharacteristically summoned China’s ambassador to
explain the incident.

China’s foreign ministry downplayed the matter, saying its
trawlers were carrying out normal fishing activities in
“relevant waters”.

Just a couple of weeks later, Malaysia announced plans to
set up a naval forward operating base near Bintulu, south of
Miri.

The defence minister insists the base, which will house
helicopters, drones and a special task force, is to protect the
country’s rich oil and gas assets from potential attacks by
Islamic State (IS) sympathisers based in the southern
Philippines, hundreds of kilometres to the northeast.

Some officials and experts however say China’s activities
off the coast are a more important factor.

“If you beef up security for oil and gas assets, you are
protecting yourself from non-state and state actors so there is
some plausibility to what he’s saying,” said Ian Storey, a South
China Sea expert at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

“But is it really being driven by Daesh? I don’t think so,”
Storey added, using an alternative name for IS.

Underscoring the hardening attitude, one senior federal
minister told Reuters that Malaysia must take more decisive
action on maritime incursions or risk being taken for granted.

The minister, who asked not to be named due to the
sensitivity of the matter, highlighted the contrast between
Malaysia’s response in March to a similar incident just days
earlier in neighbouring Indonesia.

“When the Chinese entered Indonesia’s waters, they were
immediately chased out. When the Chinese vessels entered our
waters, nothing was done,” the minister said.

Last month in parliament, Malaysia’s deputy foreign minister
also reiterated that like other Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia did not recognise China’s
controversial Nine Dash Line, which it uses to claim over 90
percent of the South China Sea.

LIMITED OPTIONS

Asked about the incident described by the MMEA officer,
China’s foreign ministry said both countries had a “high degree
of consensus” on dealing with maritime disputes through dialogue
and consultation.

“We are willing to remain in close touch with Malaysia about
this,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

Malaysia’s reliance on China goes some way to explaining
Kuala Lumpur’s reluctance to react more strongly.

China is Malaysia’s top export destination and Malaysia is
the biggest importer of Chinese goods and services in the
10-member ASEAN group.

Corporations owned by the Chinese government also paid
billions of dollars last year to buy assets from debt-riddled
state investment firm 1MDB, which has been a major embarrassment
for Prime Minister Najib Razak.

China’s influence in Malaysia’s domestic affairs has always
been a concern for the Malay-majority nation. Ethnic Chinese in
Malaysia account for about a quarter of the population.

Diplomatic ties between the two countries were tested in
September when the Chinese ambassador visited China town in the
capital Kuala Lumpur ahead of a pro-Malay rally, and warned that
Beijing has no fear in talking against actions that affect the
rights of its people.

The ambassador was summoned to explain his comments but the
Chinese foreign ministry defended the envoy.

Seeking to balance its economic and national security
interests, Malaysia is pursuing various strategies including
bolstering its surveillance and defence capabilities while
promoting a code of conduct between China and ASEAN countries
signed in 2002.

A more sensitive option is to seek closer military ties with
the United States.

One senior official told Reuters that Malaysia has reached
out to the United States for help on intelligence gathering and
to develop its coast guard capabilities, albeit quietly to avoid
angering Beijing.

Storey said moves to secure closer U.S. military ties could
be twinned with soft diplomacy to try to convince China to be
less assertive on its claims, but resolving the issue would be
difficult regardless.

“None of these strategies work very well, but what can you
do?,” Storey said. “This dispute is going to be around for a
very long time.”

(Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR and Ben
Blanchard in BEIJING.; Editing by Praveen Menon and Lincoln
Feast)

The article As Beijing flexes muscles in South China Sea, Malaysia eyes harder response was originally published at Reuters - US Energy.