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  • Writer's pictureBait Al-Amanah

Malaysia’s South China Sea policy amid growing frictions in Malaysian territory

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

By Fikry A. Rahman, Head of Foreign Affairs and Dr. Abdul Razak Ahmad, Founding Director of Bait Al Amanah.

JULY 25 — On July 11, 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi completed a two-day visit to Malaysia as part of his South-east Asian tour. The visit marked fruitful outcomes in strengthening Malaysia-China bilateral relations. Among Wang Yi’s itinerary in Malaysia included an audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Abdullah and a meeting with the Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in Seri Perdana.

Among key takeaways during the visit are the palm oil import, along with tropical fruits, and agricultural products from Malaysia to China. Another pertinent agenda was to strengthen the BRI key projects in Malaysia including the digital economy, and people-to-people cooperation, and to expedite the South China Sea’s Code of Conduct among stakeholders.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob receives a courtesy call from China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Perdana Putra, July 12, 2022. — Bernama pic

The visit seems to reiterate the already cordial and strong bilateral ties between both nations that are centred on the economic domain. Despite the pandemic, Malaysia-China bilateral trade in 2022 currently totalled RM421 billion with an average rate of 16 per cent increased figure. China-related projects in Malaysia show relatively good signs through the progress of the East Coast Rail Line (ECRL) at 30 per cent completion and the emerging reports on the revival of Melaka Gateway and the Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline (TSGP).

As Malaysia-China relations have largely embodied by robust economic and diplomatic sphere, the South China Sea remains a bone of contention. The ongoing frictions at Malaysian territory are worryingly epitomised by the 2020 standoff of Petronas’s West Capella drillship near Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the 2021 incursion of 16 Chinese military aircraft into Malaysia’s airspace, along with series of encroachment of Chinese vessels into Malaysian waters.

Thus, Wang Yi’s recent visit to Malaysia illuminates missing opportunities for Malaysia to stake its unequivocal position on the issues surrounding Malaysia’s territorial integrity. There are no mentions of Malaysia’s reiteration to defend its national interest in the South China Sea and the commitment to ensure freedom of navigation of the Sea.

Despite Malaysia’s South China Sea policy having been underpinned by quiet diplomacy on maintaining benign relations and non-confrontational responses over disputes, Malaysia nevertheless should be vocal and audacious when it comes to protecting its national interest and territorial integrity.

In that regards, Malaysia’s robust economic cooperation with China should not hinder its security concerns over Malaysia’s territory in the South China Sea. The emerging frictions in the South China Sea should act as a critical juncture for Malaysia by re-emphasising its claim and staking its stance over risked actions toward Malaysia’s water and air space.

Malaysia needs to gradually depart from its current approaches in dealing with the frictions on Malaysia’s water and crafting a rather constructive mechanism. Malaysia’s South China Sea policy must be embedded in its mantra of independent, principled, and pragmatic foreign policy and streamlined with the 2020 Malaysia’s Defence White Paper to contend with the emerging realities in the Sea. However, it remains ambiguous how Malaysia’s Foreign Policy Framework and Defence White Paper will construct a new direction for Malaysia’s South China Sea policy amid frictions and uncertainties in the Sea.

Malaysia’s reliance on international law and diplomacy will remain an important mechanism to resolve maritime disputes. Despite China’s commitment to the South China Sea’s Code of Conduct, Malaysia must play a bigger role to support and expedite the agenda from an Asean point of view. This is paramount in fortifying regional efforts on the South China Sea, despite overlapping claims among Asean member states over the Sea.

As Malaysia’s continuation to assert its claim via a legal medium is commendable through formal submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in 2019, a proactive mechanism is still needed. It includes bolstering its maritime capabilities to patrol and safeguard Malaysia’s territorial integrity, along with the assets and activities at the EEZ areas.

Thus, with the growing competition and disputes in the South China Sea that risking Malaysia’s territorial integrity, it is high time for Putrajaya to re-examine its South China Sea policy. Malaysia’s national interest must be prioritised by bolstering its overall strategy on the South China Sea, and territorial integrity must be protected, regardless.

*This article is originally published in Malay Mail, dated 25 July 2022.

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