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  • Writer's pictureIan Murphy

Malaysia's Position Vis-a-Vis China in the South China Sea

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

  • Malaysia is currently in a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.

  • Malaysia will not backdown from this dispute, but prioritizes diplomacy with China and multilateral engagement to maintain peace in the region.

  • There is low risk of this current dispute affecting international trade or escalating into military conflict.

Territorial Dispute in the South China Sea As one of the claimant states in the South China Sea, Malaysia has been engaged in an ongoing territorial dispute with China. Recent exploration and vessel activity in the disputed area in Malaysian waters caused renewed tensions between the two countries. The involvement of Malaysian state-owned energy firm Petronas, which sits in a part of the South China Sea claimed by both Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, became a point of contention as China expressed its concern about the activity recorded on their claimed territory. China has been reasserting controls on the basis of its historical claim to sovereignty on the ground of the “nine-dash line” on its maps. The country claims the entirety of the South China Sea that overlaps with the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which holds territorial conflict with different countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) has been proactively patrolling the Malaysian waters as part of Malaysia’s effort to safeguard their territory. The RMN uses sound cannons to strengthen its presence on defense without using military action that would risk escalating to direct physical conflict. As a precaution, Malaysia put Chinese warships under surveillance to serve as a reminder to China that Malaysian forces are monitoring its territorial waters.

This territorial conflict was once again brought to light at a meeting between Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Prime Minister Anwar addressed the need to maintain the supply of their resources such as oil and gas. It was reported that Chinese-operated ships have been seen stationed approximately 2.4km away from the Petrona platform. Additionally, a Malaysian ship was also spotted in the disputed area conducting surveillance. China has since stated that the operation lies within the country’s jurisdiction. Malaysia is not willing to reverse Petronas’s exploration activities in the disputed area, though Malaysia is open for negotiation and further diplomatic discussions regarding the South China Sea dispute.

The recent incident between Malaysia and China is only one among several territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China's territorial claims in the region are based on its "nine-dash line" map, which extends to almost 80% of the SCS and overlaps with other states' claims to territory. In a case presented by the government of the Philippines to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the court ruled in July 2016 that China's "nine-dash line" claim was invalid under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China rejected this ruling in favor of bilateral diplomacy, where it can gain the upper hand over weaker negotiating partners. Despite the ruling, China has maintained its presence in the West Philippine Sea and other disputed areas in the South China Sea, where it performs various activities and operations such as the construction of artificial islands, ports, defense facilities, and airstrips. These activities not only violate international law, they also raise concerns among other countries about China’s intentions in the surrounding region.

Claimants had been trying to counter Chinese action through diplomatic protests as well as performing operations such as energy exploration, resources development, and freedom of navigation operations in order to support their claims. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is currently trying to reach agreements between its member states and China while enforcing the Code of Conduct (COC). However, China has refrained from addressing cases brought against it by multilateral bodies such as the United Nations and ASEAN, which has only slowed the resolution process and threatens to divide the region among the interests of individual nation states.

Malaysia’s Approach to China and Regional Trends

Malaysia’s bases its approach to its maritime claims on its 1979 map. As the junior military power in its bilateral relationship, it chooses to engage with China diplomatically, not militarily, as a way of preventing escalation in the region. The Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Malaysia’s approach is directed and in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and ASEAN’s Code of Conduct. Although Malaysia is attempting to resolve disputes through diplomacy and dialogue, this method is dependent on either gaining consensus among other Southeast Asian claimants or commitment from China to pursue diplomacy, not the use of force, to resolve disputes. As a member of ASEAN, Malaysia has supported the development of the organization’s Code of Conduct, and should be expected to invest in continuing to promote diplomacy in both bilateral and multilateral engagement with China. Though China poses a challenge to Malaysia, when on its own, Malaysia will pursue peace and stability over confrontation.

The case of Malaysia’s conflict with China is an archetypal example of how other claimants are handling Chinese confrontation in the South China Sea. Although individual methods may vary, the general strategy of nations is to not explicitly escalate conflict with China in their claimed territories. When weaker states act individually, they will protest Chinese incursions, but they will do so without changing the status quo as to maintain peace and stability. However, we are seeing the formation of a collective approach among claimants toward China. The region’s claimants are actively seeking to undermine Chinese claims through collective diplomacy and action through ASEAN, while building their military posture.

Since winning the Court of Arbitration case on the West Philippine Sea in 2016, the Philippines has been working with the United States to prepare the country for maritime conflict with China. Recently, the Philippines agreed to construct four new military bases for U.S. troops, as well as to conduct joint training and military exercises with the United States. U.S. forces will be stationed in Ilocos Norte, Aurora, Zambales, Palawan, and Antique for the 2023 “Balikatan Exercises,” meaning “shoulder-to-shoulder,” with the goal of preparing Filipino forces for confrontation if deterrence fails.

In contrast, Philippine military sources emphasized that these changes are intended to strengthen the country's coastline defenses and are not directed in opposition to any specific country. Despite the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement stating that U.S. efforts are intended to support Philippine disaster relief efforts, the Chinese Embassy in Manila stated that the expansion of the EDCA will hard the Philippines’ national interests and threaten regional stability.

It is clear that the region is changing its response to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. While there are overlapping claims among various countries, China remains the main threat to regional stability due to its rejection of multilateral diplomacy and embrace of the use of force to coerce smaller nations. We should expect to see Southeast Asian nations diplomatically protest Chinese claims and actions while working with partners to strengthen their military position. Doing so will give weaker nations a stronger hand at the negotiating table and prepare for possible military confrontation in the future.


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