‘Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick’: What is Malaysia Playing At?

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‘Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick’: What is Malaysia Playing At?

Malaysia and China have had maritime run-ins with mixed results. What is Malaysia’s endgame in the South China Sea?

‘Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick’: What is Malaysia Playing At?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For the past two years China has dispatched a flotilla of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships to the farthest reaches of the South China Sea to assert Beijing’s claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters and features lying within its nine-dashed line. Beijing’s ambitious claim covers an estimated eighty percent of the South China Sea.

On each occasion PLAN warships sailed to James Shoal, or Beting Serupai in Malay, eighty kilometers off the coast of East Malaysia. According to Bill Hayton, who is completing a book on the South China Sea, China’s claim is based on a double historical error.

The first error occurred in 1933 when the Republic of China set up an official Inspection Committee for Land and Water Maps to catalogue every part of Chinese territory on land and sea. The Inspection Committee lacked the means to carry out any maritime surveys and so it plagiarized from a contemporary British Admiralty map and attempted to translate the names of maritime features into Chinese.  James Shoal was erroneously translated as Zengmu Tan or sandbank. This error had the effect of transforming a shoal, which lies under the water, into a land feature above the water.

The second error occurred in 1947 when the Republic of China drew up China’s claims to the South China Sea in a map containing eleven dash lines. Zengmu Tan was renamed Zengmu Ansha or reef. Despite the fact that James Shoal lies 22 meters below the sea, the People’s Republic of China advances the fictitious claim that it is a land feature marking the southernmost extent of China’s territory.

On March 26, 2013, a flotilla of four PLAN warships, including its largest and most modern amphibious assault ship, Jinggangshan, a destroyer and two guided missile frigates, conducted an oath taking ceremony at James Shoal. PLAN sailors and marines pledged to “defend the South China Sea, maintain national sovereignty and strive towards the dream of a strong China,” according to Chinese media reports. According to other accounts the Chinese warships fired their guns into the air.

Malaysia-based journalists reported that Malaysian Foreign Ministry officials were unavailable for comment. A government official later announced that there were no reports of any encounter with the PLAN flotilla by Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency or the Royal Malaysian Navy. It later reported that Malaysia had lodged a protest with Chinese authorities.

In April 2013, it was reported that a China maritime surveillance ship returned to James Shoal with the intention of dropping steel sovereignty markets into the shoal. Publicity surrounding this incident was suppressed until it leaked out months later.

Later in the year, on June 3, Prime Minister Najib in a speech in Kuala Lumpur called for claimants in the South China Sea to jointly develop resources to avoid conflict and prevent “extra-regional states” from becoming involved. This was widely viewed as a swipe at the United States.

Even more astonishing were the observations of Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein in an interview in late August. The Minister stated, “Just because you have enemies, doesn’t mean your enemies are my enemies.” He also observed that the Chinese “can patrol every day, but if their intention is not to go to war” it is of less concern. “I think we have enough level of trust,” the minister said, “that we will not be moved by day-to-day politics or emotions.”

Malaysia reacted to the return visit by a PLAN flotilla in January 2014 in a similar fashion. According to Chinese media, three PLAN warships, the Jinggangshan amphibious assault ship and two destroyers, patrolled the waters near James Shoal. Sailors and marines again swore to safeguard the sovereignty of Zengmu Ansha.

Malaysian foreign ministry officials were once again unavailable for comment. A day after the PLAN visit to James Shoal, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson asserted China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over James Shoal and denied that China had received an official protest from Malaysia.

On January 29, the chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy, Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar, responded to press queries about the presence of Chinese warships at Beting Serupai by denying theexercises took place. The navy chief instead referred to PLAN warships exercising 1,000 nautical miles away.

It was not until February 20 that the chief of the Malaysian armed forces, General Tan Sri Zulkifeli Mohd Zin, confirmed press reports. General Zulkifeli confirmed to a press conference at Defense Headquarters that Malaysia had monitored the Chinese flotilla and that it “strayed into Malaysian waters.” General Zulkifeli noted that the PLAN was undertaking innocent passage and that prior notification had been posted on an official Chinese navy website.

General Zulkifeli stated, “That’s a natural thing, As long as it was an innocent passage, that is okay with us.”

Malaysia’s reaction to the two visits to James Shoal by PLAN warships gave rise to speculation that Malaysia was breaking ranks with fellow ASEAN members and was pursuing a low-key approach on territorial disputes with China in order to accrue economic benefits. But a closer examination of Malaysian policy reveals a more complex response.

Malaysia’s policy, to borrow from Theodore Roosevelt, is one of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” For example, on August 30, 2013, immediately after the comments by Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein quoted above, an email was sent out to regional security analysts by a highly placed Malaysian government source. The email read:

I have it on good authority that the defense minister was not properly briefed on the issue and that his words certainly didn’t reflect Malaysian policy. While we recognize the freedom of navigation for all vessels, including military ones, on the high seas, we require that states ask for our permission to conduct military activities in our exclusive economic zone. And that requirement applies to all foreign naval vessels, including Chinese ones. The defense minister’s statement does not change that.

And, in an apparent reference to Prime Minister Najib’s speech in June 2013, the Malaysian government source stated, “Nor are we ready to consider joint development activities with the Chinese. That would require recognition of China’s claims in the South China Sea, including our EEZ. And that’s not our policy.”

Malaysia has taken three important steps to strengthen its figurative “big stick.” On October 10, 2013, after the PLAN visit to James Shoal, Malaysia’s Defense Minister announced that a new naval base would be built in Sarawak, one hundred kilometers from James Shoal. Second, he announced that Malaysia would start up a new Marine Corps to provide amphibious capabilities in the South China Sea. The new naval base and marine unit would be tasked with protecting Malaysia’s off-shore oil and gas reserves as well as defending against possible armed incursions from the southern Philippines.

Third, on February 11, 2014 Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar and his U.S. counterpart, Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, the new Chief of Naval Operations, agreed to step up U.S. naval visits to Malaysia. According to Admiral Aziz, “Since 2008 to the end of last year, 132 US naval ships have called at Malaysian ports such as Pulau Indah and Kota Kinabalu.”

Both navy chiefs discussed potential cooperation in submarine operations, maritime security issues, and a report of an alleged shooting incident by the Chinese navy while patrolling the South China Sea recently. Admiral Greenert visited the Malaysian navy’s submarine base in Kota Kinabalu.

Malaysia has also begun to “talk softly” with fellow members of ASEAN. Diplomatic sources report that recently Malaysia has begun to play a more proactive role in advance of China-ASEAN consultations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which are due to begin in Singapore in March. Malaysia is also hosting a visit by Philippine President Benigno Aquino. The diplomatic rumor mill reports that the United States is quietly encouraging Malaysia and Vietnam to lend support to the Philippines as the March deadline for its submission to the UN Arbitral Tribunal approaches.