Over the past few days, some alarmist reports have surfaced about Chinese navy receiving access to a Malaysian port near the South China Sea. As is the case with much sensationalist reporting, caution is warranted and perspective is needed.
The brouhaha can be traced back to an agreement reached on November 10 between Admiral Wu Shengli, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN), and Admiral Abdul Aziz Jaafar who until last week was the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) chief. Wu was leading a goodwill visit by a 12-member Chinese military delegation to Malaysia as part of a broader three-nation visit which also included Indonesia and the Maldives. The trip itself was significant: as Abdul Aziz noted, it was the first ever-visit by a PLAN commander to Malaysia.
Few specifics have been made publicly available about the pact itself. But Malaysian media reports indicate that an agreement was made by the two sides to give China stopover access to the port of Kota Kinabalu to strengthen defense ties between both countries.
First, it is important to stress that this kind of port access is a pretty routine affair. In general, allowing a ship to dock at a port for a break to load or unload, obtain supplies, or undergo repairs is a fairly standard process. The idea of Chinese ships at Kota Kinabalu is also not new. Back in August 2013, the Zhenghe, a PLAN training vessel, had already docked at the harbor in Kota Kinabalu to begin a five-day goodwill visit to the country. So, if anything, the agreement represents the formalization of access rather than some sort of groundbreaking entry.
Second, such port access is not equivalent to basing rights, contrary to what some reports have suggested. An access agreement would allow the Chinese navy to dock for a break in Kota Kinabalu for the various reasons cited above – nothing more. Equating this as part of some Chinese ‘basing strategy’ is rather dubious. In addition to being out of step with Malaysian foreign policy which avoids too close of an alignment with any major power, it would also be a tad bit strange to allow a foreign country who has outstanding disputes with Malaysia to have a base there since Kota Kinabalu also houses Malaysia’s regional naval headquarters and the country’s submarine base (See: “Malaysia Eyes Submarine Base Expansion Near South China Sea”).
Third, this port access is not something that has only been given to China. As Abdul Aziz, the then-Malaysian naval chief, emphasized to Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama, a number of other countries including the United States and France have already previously docked in the Malaysian port. In fact, before conducting the recent U.S. freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s controversial man-made islands in the South China Sea on October 27, the USS Lassen had docked in Kota Kinabalu for a regular port visit on October 19 after a routine South China Sea patrol.
How, then, should we read Malaysia’s granting of port access to China? According to Abdul Aziz himself, the move was part of a broader effort to enhance defense relations between the two countries’ navies to “overcome problems and issues relating to overlapping border claims.” He was no doubt referring to the South China Sea disputes, in which both China and Malaysia are claimants.
His comments are consistent with Malaysia’s broader approach to China and the South China Sea, which I have explored in detail previously (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Approach: Playing it Safe”). Despite bolder and more frequent Chinese incursions into its waters and some adjustments, Malaysia is determined to manage the South China Sea dispute while keeping its overall relationship with China intact, including in the defense realm (See: “How is Malaysia Responding to China’s South China Sea Intrusion?”). Just last year, Malaysia and China carried out their first ever joint military exercise (See: “Malaysia, China Begin First Joint Military Exercise”). That was expanded significantly this year (See: “China, Malaysia to Hold First Ever Joint Live Troop Exercise”).
In that vein, the aim of granting port access to countries including China, a Malaysian official familiar with the matter told The Diplomat, is meant to function more as a confidence-building measure amid outstanding disputes. Abdul Aziz himself spelled out how this might work, noting that allowing Beijing such access would also provide an opportunity to learn from Chinese methods of operation and about Chinese submarines that could be docking there. This, he said, was in line with the government’s aspiration to adopt the best solution to secure peace and security in the South China Sea. While one might not be convinced about the wisdom of such an approach, it is nonetheless one Malaysia has chosen to adopt.
What’s in it for China? First, there is no doubt that having access to more ports in strategic locations is good for any nation because they can serve as supply stops along the way. Second, the Malaysian official also noted that for Beijing, symbolically such an agreement does put it on par with Washington in terms of the access to the port and its strategic presence in those waters more generally.
Third, it could also provide Beijing with an opportunity to shore up its image, consistent with the confidence-building motive on Malaysia’s end. In addition to serving as breaks for ships and sailors, port visits have long functioned as a confidence-building measure to boost familiarity. For instance, when the USS Lassen recently docked in Kota Kinabalu, sailors participated in cultural tours around the area while local dignitaries were given guided tours of the ship.
China already sees its naval presence as a ‘soft power’ instrument, which is why it is misleading to only focus on the military aspects of Beijing’s moves. It is no coincidence that these two Chinese naval goodwill visits in 2013 and 2015 occurred prior to Chinese leaders’ visits to Malaysia, or that Beijing has emphasized Zheng He’s voyages in the 15th century during the Ming Dynasty in both cases (Zhenghe, the PLA training vessel, docking in Kota Kinabalu in 2013 before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit, and Chinese premier Li Keqiang visiting the Zheng He Museum in Malacca during his recent visit).
For China, Zheng’s legendary seven voyages of trade and discovery are testaments to Beijing’s benign intentions toward its neighbors, and Malaysia – where he is believed to have visited at least five times – is a perfect place to illustrate this. “Today, when we look back at that past episode in China-Malaysia exchanges, we also admire Zheng He for what he had not done,” Li wrote in an op-ed published November 20 in major Malaysian newspapers ahead of his visit, noting that Zheng He had not plundered or colonized despite commanding what was then the most powerful fleet in the world.
There is substance behind that symbolism too. Among the deliverables that Li’s visit produced were the establishment of a port alliance between China and Malaysia. The two countries have already seen several of their ports ink cooperation agreements with each other as well as the appointment of a special envoy for Malaysian ports to China in recognition of the promise of the Maritime Silk Road. All this is to emphasize that for Beijing as well as Kuala Lumpur, ports hold much more than just military significance.
For now, Abdul Aziz told The Straits Times that with respect to the port access agreement, the PLA Navy “has noted the offer, but no indication yet” has been given on when it may begin to dock at Kota Kinabalu. When it begins to do so, it will be important to keep its significance in perspective.