Malaysia - Foreign Relations
Malaysia is one of the South China Sea claimants. Compared with countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, Malaysia has been regarded as a low-profile pragmatist when it comes to the South China Sea issue. The country has played it safe. Thanks to such policies, Malaysia and China have a lot in common to promote pragmatic cooperation and to maintain regional stability.
Policies pursued by Malaysia include: First, the South China Sea dispute is not at the top agenda of dialogues between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is more willing to take chances of political dialogues to promote pragmatic cooperation with China. Second, oil and gas exploration is a priority for Malaysia's South China Sea policies. Third, the country is not keen on sensationalizing the South China Sea disputes. Large protests trigged by the South China Sea differences are rarely seen in Malaysia. Fourth, Malaysia has taken a positive attitude toward promoting consultations and preventative diplomacy among South China Sea claimants. It has played a relatively proactive role in negotiations regarding the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
The ASEAN-China Declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DOC) signed by China and the ASEAN countries in 2002 did not achieve its purpose of promoting a peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment in the South China Sea. Instead, the next decade witnessed numerous clashes between the sovereignty-claimants. The decade witnessed numerous clashes the Philippines and Malaysia, and Malaysia and Brunei.
The government submitted a claim to the UN on 12 December 2019 to increase Malaysia’s continental shelf beyond the standard 200 nautical miles off the northernmost point of Malaysian Borneo. Malaysia claimed an Extended Continental Shelf (ECS). It made the filing under Article 76 of the UNCLOS, which allows a coastal state to claim the outer limits of its continental shelf beyond the 200-mile limit, for an additional 150 miles, under certain geological conditions. It is a legal move that also eats substantially into the Chinese Nine-Dash Lines.
“We expected China to object, but it is our claim and we will maintain our claim,” Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah told reporters in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital. "For China to claim that the whole of South China Sea belongs to China, I think that is ridiculous". It was unclear what prompted Malaysia to file a formal submission this month.
China protested with the same language it used since as early as 2016 to state its case to the United Nations. “China has internal waters, territorial sea and a contiguous zone based on its Nanhai Zhudao,” the Chinese mission said in a note to the U.N., referring to its islands in the South China Sea. “China has an exclusive economic zone and continental shelf,” the note said, according to the South China Morning Post. “China has historic rights in the South China Sea.”
Due to the deadline on 13 May 1999 of claiming outer continental shelves (OCS) designated by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the tension in the South China Sea between claiming states increased since 2009. On 06 May 2009, Malaysia and Vietnam made a joint submission relating to an area in the South of the South China Sea. On 08 May 2009, Vietnam made a submission on its own relating to an area near the center of the South China Sea. Previously, Vietnam invited Brunei to make a joint submission together with Malaysia. On 12 May 2009, Brunei made a submission to the CLCS to show that a disputed area of the South China Sea was also situated beyond 200 nautical miles from the baseline from which Brunei’s territorial sea is measured, but Brunei had not protested Malaysia and Vietnam’s joint submission. On 7th May 2009, China made immediate objections to the Vietnamese submission and Vietnamese-Malaysian joint submissions to CLCF. It protested that these actions infringed upon Chinese sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea.
Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, at that time Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, said on 28 June 2006 "You don't try and fight an elephant, but you can get between an elephant's legs! China is a big market. It buys a lot of Malaysian goods, including palm oil.... China is not a threat. It is an economic challenge, but not a security threat. Given its capability to launch operations in the South China Sea, it is not a threat to Malaysia. Generally, we are comfortable with the security situation in the region. However, it would help global security if the Palestine issue is resolved. This would also help the overall security of the region. We need to find a solution to the Israel-Palestine issue based on the two state systems."
Malaysia has asserted sovereignty over the Spratly Islands together with China, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and possibly Brunei; while the 2002 "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea" has eased tensions over the Spratly Islands, it is not the legally binding "code of conduct" sought by some parties. Malaysia was not party to the March 2005 joint accord among the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam on conducting marine seismic activities in the Spratly Islands. Disputes continue over deliveries of fresh water to Singapore, Singapore's land reclamation, bridge construction, and maritime boundaries in the Johor and Singapore Straits.
In November 2007, the ICJ held public hearings in response to the Memorials and Countermemorials filed by the parties in 2003 and 2005 over sovereignty of Pedra Branca Island/Pulau Batu Puteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge. The ICJ awarded Ligitan and Sipadan islands, also claimed by Indonesia and Philippines, to Malaysia but left maritime boundary and sovereignty of Unarang rock in the hydrocarbon-rich Celebes Sea in dispute.
A Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel had been anchored near South Luconia Shoal (Beting Patinggi Ali), just 84 nautical miles off the coast of Sarawak, since September 4, 2013. Markers placed by the Malaysian government have mysteriously disappeared, replaced by those written in a “foreign language,” according to parliamentary proceedings. Between 2013 and early 2014, Malaysia’s policy towards the South China Sea became obscure. Taken aback by Chinese naval patrols around James Shoal (Beting Serupai in Malay), only 43 nautical miles off the coast of Sarawak State, the government responded with silence, denial, and nonchalance. Malaysian authorities were caught off balance by China’s audacity, which they had not expected given Kuala Lumpur’s perceived special relationship with Beijing.
Malaysia's stand that security issues in the South China Sea be resolved through negotiations received the agreement of all countries attending the 11th East Asia Summit (EAS) 8 September 2016. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak said all the countries, including China, had given their commitment to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the adoption of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea (COC) which would be summarized in 2017. "The East Asia Summit this time gives a positive environment in our discussion on matters concerning the region as well as at the international level. Certainly, matters concerning the South China Sea will become the focus of the international community. "This time, we see that there is a positive desire in searching for a solution to the duplication in the South China Sea," he told Malaysian journalists. Najib said the EAS member countries had also agreed on the implementation of the CUEC (Code for Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea) and the Guidelines for Hotline Communication among Senior Officials of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Asean in the event of any emergency in the maritime region.
Durig the 31 May 2021 incursion, Chinese military aircraft flew to as close as 60 nautical miles from Kuala Lumpur-administered Beting Patinggi Ali – also known as Luconia Shoals – which Beijing, too, claims as part of its territories in the maritime region. The incursion prompted Malaysia to scramble Hawk 20 combat jets from its Labuan airbase after the Chinese aircraft failed to respond to local air traffic controllers. Chinese coast guard ships since early June 20211 also put pressure on and harassing new Malaysian oil and gas projects in the South China Sea off Sarawak state on Borneo Island, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a U.S.-based think- tank researching ship-tracking data said in a July 2021 report.
Malaysia’s successful test-fire of three live anti-ship missiles showed it was prepared to deal with intrusions into its South China Sea territory, analysts said on 20 Auguest 2021. The Malaysian Navy’s “Taming Sari” exercise was noteworthy, as it was conducted following the intrusion of 16 Chinese military planes into Malaysia’s maritime airspace over the disputed South China Sea in May, said Lai Yew Meng, a regional security analyst.
“There is indeed a need to visibly demonstrate, via exercises like the Taming Sari, Malaysia's capabilities and national will to defend its sovereignty,” Lai, with Universiti Malaysia Sabah, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. “This is especially significant following the [Chinese military’ planes'] overflight that ostensibly almost encroached on Malaysian air space at the end of May. Observers suggest that was a possible attempt by the Chinese military to test Malaysia's combat readiness and operational capabilities.”
The six-day exercise, which ended Aug. 12, was the first warfare drill since the COVID-19 pandemic began early in 2020. Malaysia held similar drills in 2019 and 2014. During the exercise, the Malaysian Navy’s submarine, KD Tun Razak, successfully launched one Exocet SM39 anti-ship missile, while two other ships, KD Lekiu and KD Lekir, launched one Exocet MM40 guided missile each.
“This is at least the third time since last spring that the CCG has harassed Malaysian energy exploration,” AMTI, a subsidiary of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said in the report titled “Contest at Kasawari: Another Malaysian Gas Project Faces Pressure.”
“It demonstrates again Beijing’s persistence in challenging its neighbors’ oil and gas activities within their own exclusive economic zones. And the air patrol, which was likely not a coincidence, suggests Beijing’s willingness to engage in parallel escalation to pressure other claimants to back down,” the report said, referring to Chinese planes' incursion.
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