This week, two Chinese submarines paid a visit to Malaysia in the first naval engagement between the two countries in 2017.
The CNS Chang Xing Dao and CNS Chang Cheng of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) visited Sabah, according to a statement by the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN).
The RMN described the visit by the submarines as part of the regular navy-to-navy interactions that have been occurring between the two countries as part of their growing defense diplomacy, and no further details were disclosed by the end of Tuesday. Although this may seem like an unsurprising attempt to downplay this single interaction, it is also true that while this visit included Chinese submarines, other Chinese vessels have been making more of such visits to Malaysia during the past few years.
To take just one example, from October 7-11 last year, three Chinese vessels – CNS Xiang Tan, CNS Zhou Shan, and CNS Chao Hu – arrived in Malaysia’s Port Klang for a five day tour which included interactions with Malaysian naval officials as well as visits to Malaysian facilities. At the time, the RMN also described the visit similarly as a defense diplomacy initiative to strengthen cooperation between the two navies.
But the presence of Chinese submarines in Malaysia at the start of 2017 has nonetheless drawn attention given recent developments in defense ties between the two countries as well as the evolving security environment more generally. Though I often emphasize that Sino-Malaysian defense relations have evolved slowly even since the inking of a formal defense pact between the two countries back in 2005, it is also true that ties have been strengthening much quicker in the last year or two.
In 2015, Malaysia and China began annual military exercises and China secured access to the port of Kota Kinabalu following the visit of PLA Navy commander Admiral Wu Shengli (See: “Why Did China’s Navy Gain Access to a Malaysia Port Near the South China Sea”). And in 2016, during Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit to China, the two countries inked their first major naval agreement. Though the significance of the visit and the agreement was somewhat exaggerated, it nonetheless marked an important development in military ties (See: “Malaysia Is Not Pivoting to China With Najib’s Visit”).
Meanwhile, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has continued unabated amid concerns about disunity among Southeast Asia’s four claimant states – Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines (under President Rodrigo Duterte) – with respect to Chinese behavior and uncertainty about the direction of U.S. Asia policy under President-Elect Donald Trump (See: “What Will Donald Trump’s Asia Policy Look Like?”).
But as I have noted previously, the Najib government’s approach to the South China Sea, which it views as inextricably linked to the country’s overall relationship with China, is based on both engaging Beijing where possible, including in the defense realm, while also taking specific, albeit much quieter (and arguably insufficient) moves partly aimed at balancing it (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing it Safe”).