In a somewhat novel maritime development in the South China Sea, China and Malaysia have agreed to hold joint military exercises next year, following up on a Memorandum of Understanding the two signed in 2005. The exercises were confirmed by Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein towards the end of October. The two states formally held their first defense and security consultation in Kuala Lumpur in late 2012.
Despite the vagueness of the statement, Hishammuddin confirmed that the exercises would contain a strong maritime element. Beyond the fact that the drills are planned for next year, there are no details about their scope, location, or which military branches will participate. According to Defense News, Hishamuddin invited his Chinese counterpart, General Chang Wanquan, "to visit the Malaysian naval base of Mawilla 2 in the South China Sea on the island of Borneo.”
The announcement came just two weeks after reports that Malaysia would establish a marine corps and a naval base close to the James Shoal, which in waters in the South China Sea (SCS) claimed by both China and Malaysia. According to IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) is expected to set up a base at Bintulu in the South China Sea "to protect the surrounding area and oil reserves.”
The James Shoal – 60 nautical miles from this location – was the site of a PLAN exercise in March 2013. Janes cites that exercise as an example of "China asserting its claims to most of the SCS.” It continues that the marine corps announcement "follows a number of unpublicised incursions by Chinese naval and maritime surveillance forces into Malaysian waters off East Malaysia and the Malaysian portion of the Spratly Islands.”
In a piece written in March 2013, appearing in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s blog The Strategist, Shahriman Lockman underscored the muted Malaysia reaction to China’s exercise at the James Shoal. Lockman said, "the exercise was also notable for the distinct lack of a visible public reaction from Malaysia. Neither the Malaysian Prime Minister nor the Foreign Ministry has made even the most perfunctory statement on the matter. Never mind that a Malaysian naval offshore patrol vessel, the KD Perak, monitored the exercise and issued orders for the PLA Navy to leave the area. And never mind that a standard protest may have been quietly expressed through diplomatic channels.”
In Lockman’s analysis, Malaysia is somewhat of an exceptional case in ASEAN vis-à-vis China on security matters owing to its historical significance, among other factors. On defense issues, the two have pledged to establish high-level cooperation since 2000, when they signed a long-term cooperative framework agreement. Southeast Asia expert and fellow Flashpoints columnist, Carl Thayer writes that the agreement "included a defense clause calling for an exchange program of high-level visits, study tours, seminars, ship visits, and cooperation in training, research and development, and intelligence sharing. In addition, the agreement also called for cooperation between national defense industries to include reciprocal visits, exhibitions, seminars and workshops to explore the possibility of joint or co-production projects.” Thayer notes that China and Malaysia conduct bilateral relations on the level of “strategic partners."
Xi Jinping has also talked of establishing a “maritime silk road” with ASEAN states – a proposal that was met with considerable skepticism across Southeast Asia given the scope of territorial disputes with China in the SCS. Xi’s proposal is expected to direct Chinese attention and investment towards establishing "a web of trade links and better connectivity between ports and maritime co-operation.” The move to conduct maritime exercises with Malaysia may be an attempt to foment the latter – Xi and Li, during their recent visits to Southeast Asia, did emphasize the concept quite a bit.
The decision to conduct these exercises also flies in the face of ASEAN’s strategy against China. The ten-member body has been trying to present a united front against China, which is perceived as a regional “bully” by some. The Diplomat was unable to determine if the decision to follow-up on the 2005 MOU on Defense Cooperation was initiated by the Chinese side or the Malaysia side. The reaction from other ASEAN states to the decision is sure to be negative, especially considering the very recent flare-ups of maritime disputes between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. At this point, it's anyone's guess if Malaysia and China are maritime partners or competitors in the South China Sea.