On the 47th anniversary of Malaysia-China ties, 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) planes flew over Malaysia’s airspace 40-60 nautical miles off the Sarawakian coast, which was widely publicized and denounced by Malaysia. This incident in addition to other long-standing issues highlights the complexity and contentiousness of South China Sea disputes.
Providing a deeper insight into the impact of South China Sea disputes on Malaysia-China Relations, Bait Al-Amanah (House of Trust), NAHEL Endowment for Peace, and Z Consulting Group jointly organised a webinar on the 7th of July 2021.
In his opening remarks, Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin highlighted that Malaysia and China have shared a very special relationship that has spanned for centuries, growing in dynamism as the world becomes more globalised and connected. However, the unresolved maritime dispute of the South China Sea remains the most critical issue Malaysia has to deal with.
Echoing this sentiment, Elina Noor, Director for Political-Security Affairs of the Asia Society Policy Institute explained why the South China Sea dispute is so important to Malaysia in her Keynote Speech. First, oil and gas in which the reserves across the South China Sea are estimated to be worth USD 25-60 trillion, according to Chinese sources; which could partly explain the increasingly forceful moves in the area.
In addition to the ample marine resources available in the South China Sea, Elina also expounded on the most important point of defending our nation state. “Defending the integrity of borders is one thing, defending the unity of the people within those borders is infinitely more critical”, argued Elina Noor.
In the panel discussion, Dr Ngeow Chow-Bing gave a historical overview of China’s claims in the South China Sea and its implications for Malaysia-China relations. The Director of the Institute of China Studies, Universiti Malaya also opined that the South China Sea issue will not be solved in our lifetime, but it can be managed through multilateral or bilateral discussions.
In line with that, Dr Lai Yew Meng, explained that “the significance of China in Malaysia’s macroeconomic calculus, apart from the geographical proximity and also power asymmetry vis-à-vis China requires Malaysia to take a pragmatic policy approach.”
Reiterating the importance of the South China Sea to Malaysia’s economic prosperity and well-being including its hydrocarbon deposits, tourism potential and commercial waterway, the Dean of Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s Centre for the Promotion of Knowledge and Language Learning highlighted the need for a sea of cooperation rather than a sea of conflict.
Dr Kuik Cheng-Chwee, in his assessment of the recent PLAAF intrusion, expounded that this will likely increase Malaysia’s threat perception of China, increase distrust of China’s intentions, and give us more reasons to enhance our defence partnership with other long standing defence partners in a multiprong approach.
The Head of Centre for Asian Studies, Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia also opined that Malaysia’s “political instability and uncertainty” may be the biggest factor in determining how the recent intrusion will shape Malaysia-China policy. “I think we really need to get our house in order, and that’s the biggest challenge here in Malaysia,” said Dr Kuik. He reiterated that Malaysia’s diplomacy, consultative arrangement, bilateral and multilateral engagement with China will still continue, founded upon Malaysia’s strategic equidistance and non-alignment stand.
Echoing this argument, Dr. Lai concluded on the need for a calm and level headed approach undertaken for all states pertaining the South China Sea disputes. This includes avenues for negotiation and consultation rather than taking aggressive actions to the detriment of all the states concerned.
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