Last week, The Borneo Post reported that China had once again encroached into Malaysian waters in the South China Sea.
According to the June 2 report, confirmed by Malaysian officials, a Chinese Coast Guard ship had been detected intruding into Malaysian waters at the Luconia Shoals – which Malaysia calls Beting Patinggi Ali. In this case, the vessel was not just passing through, but had been defiantly anchored just 84 nautical miles from the coast of Sarawak, well inside Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone and on the southern end of China’s nine-dash line which covers about ninety percent of the South China Sea.
This is hardly the first time Chinese vessels have encroached on Malaysian waters. Indeed, as I have written before both here and elsewhere, these intrusions have become both bolder and more frequent over the past few years (See: “Playing It Safe: Malaysia’s Approach to the South China Sea and Implications for the United States”). They pose a clear threat not only to the country’s claims in the South China Sea, but its extensive natural resource activities there as well as the territorial integrity of the nation given that the waterway divides Peninsular Malaysia from East Malaysia.
In response, Malaysia, a nation which has traditionally sought to secure its interests in the South China Sea quietly without undermining its overall relationship with Beijing through what I have termed a ‘playing it safe’ approach, has become increasingly alarmed and recalibrated its policy. Over the past few years, Malaysia has been lodging diplomatic protests directly with Beijing while also shaping debate on the South China Sea within ASEAN, increasing its military capabilities and strengthening ties with other countries including the United States (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing It Safe”).
Malaysia’s reaction to this incident is indicative of its growing concern. While Malaysia has at times downplayed such South China Sea-related matters in the past and preferred to handle them privately, the country’s response this time was much firmer and more public. Shahidan Kassim, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, told a press conference following the incident that he had held meetings with the country’s foreign ministry, national security council, navy and coast guard on the issue. He also announced that Malaysia had sent its navy and coast guard to monitor the area “to ensure the sovereignty of the country.”
Shahidan also took to his personal Facebook page to provide the Malaysian public with further details about the country’s response as well as pictures of the feature in question. In the post, which was written in Malay, he said Malaysian navy and coast guard vessels had anchored around one nautical mile from the Chinese vessel to monitor its activities. He also clarified that the feature was not a case of overlapping claims but one of a foreign ship intruding into Malaysia’s waters.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Monday, Shahidan said that Malaysia would also be taking further diplomatic action, and that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak would himself raise the issue directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He also reiterated the fact that this was not an issue of overlapping claims.
“This is not an area with overlapping claims. In this case, we’re taking diplomatic action,” he said in the interview.
Malaysia – like many other countries – has registered such diplomatic protests before. What is interesting in this case is that the country is making a point to reveal publicly that it is doing so at the highest levels, rather than just carrying this out more quietly as it often does.
The relative hardening of Malaysia’s line in the South China Sea thus far should not be viewed as an abandonment of its ‘playing it safe’ approach.’ Though the response has been firmer and more public, it is still quite measured. Shahidan did not publicly condemn Beijing’s actions to a level that would prompt an escalatory Chinese response, and the Malaysian vessels have also been deployed cautiously. The Najib administration has proven unwilling to let the issue damage the Malaysia’s broader relationship with its largest trading partner, and there is little evidence to suggest this will change anytime soon. Malaysia is also no doubt aware that it is not capable of confronting Beijing directly. Indeed, as I have noted previously, the country has been careful to build in mechanisms to prevent escalation even when it does confront Chinese vessels, down to the number of ships deployed.
Nonetheless, it is notable that Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has been so alarming that it has even hardened the position of a country that – unlike the Philippines and Vietnam – has been traditionally quieter in how it expresses its reservations.