Playing politics with Malaysia’s strategic interests

By Dennis Ignatius

REFERRING to China’s persistent incursions into our waters, former foreign minister Anifah Aman recently criticised current Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein for “playing politics with Malaysia’s maritime and strategic interests.” Not to be outdone, former deputy defence minister and DAP strategist Liew Chin Tong opined that Hishammuddin was probably “sweeping the problems under the carpet.”

In fact, successive governments have simply failed to take adequate steps to protect our national sovereignty and territorial integrity from Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

For decades now, Malaysia’s position has simply been to ignore China’s persistent incursions into our waters in order not to jeopardise good relations. The more economically dependent Malaysia became on China, the more politically paralysed we got.

Under Najib Najib, the situation deteriorated even further. Anifah was, of course, foreign minister then while Hishammuddin was defence minister. The more Najib looked to China for help on the 1Malaysia Development Bhd file, the more Chinese incursions were ignored. Indeed, Wisma Putra even abandoned the usual practice of protesting every time an incursion occurred.

We can quibble about the number of incursions or argue about who is to blame but there is no doubt that we have generally allowed such incursions to go unchallenged. Worse still, we simply do not have a coherent strategy to deal with the slow erosion of our sovereignty and territorial integrity as a result of China’s incursions.

China’s strategy is already unambiguous. The South China Sea has been declared a “core” interest, an “inalienable” part of its national territory. Already China has spent billions upgrading its naval capabilities and transforming tiny islands into major military bases. It has also regularly dispatched both civilian and naval assets to challenge the sovereignty of other claimants in what can only be described as modern-day “gunboat” diplomacy.

At the same time, China has thrown up an elaborate diplomatic smokescreen to obscure its ambitions in the South China Sea. Every time China is caught intruding into other jurisdictions, it loudly proclaims the need for restraint and calls for peaceful negotiations to resolve disputes in the region.

Here’s how the People’s Republic of China embassy spokesman in Kuala Lumpur responded to the latest round of incursions: “China is always ready to cooperate with Malaysia to deepen our mutual trust, and to continue to properly settle the relevant issues through bilateral friendly relations.” It is, of course, pure diplomatic hogwash.

Successive Malaysian governments, however, have been only too willing to go along with this chimera. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, for example, speaking at the 36th Asean summit (virtual), said: “Matters relating to the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully based on universally recognised principles of international law…” Hoping that China will respect international law is not a strategy, especially when China has so persistently disregarded it.

Our approach is so convoluted and disjointed that we now buy patrol boats from China to help guard against China’s naval intrusions; we build a very costly submarine base at Sepanggar to better protect our waters and then invite the Chinese navy to use it. We spend billions to acquire expensive naval assets and reconnaissance aircraft and then sullenly watch from afar while the Chinese navy intrudes into our waters. And all while vowing never to compromise on our sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Our so-called “experts” are no help either. Faced with multiple incidents of incursions, they wax lyrical about the “special relationship” with China, about how Malaysia was the first country in the region to have diplomatic ties with China, how important we are to Beijing and what great diplomatic skills we have in comparison with our neighbours.

They seem altogether oblivious to the fact that our so-called special relationship has not stopped China’s incursions and neither has it resulted in greater Chinese respect for our sovereignty and territorial integrity.

One has only to look at Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s unsuccessful efforts to protect his country’s maritime possessions by appeasing China at every turn to quickly realise that good relations with China is no guarantee of security.

In the meantime, while China works feverishly to change the strategic equation on the ground, it keeps Malaysia and other Asean countries busily chasing after the mythical “code of conduct in the South China Sea.” Asean and China agreed to draw up a code of conduct in 2002 amid rising tensions over disputed maritime claims. Discussions have dragged on for 18 years with no end in sight. Last year, Beijing indicated that it might take another three years to finalise the code of conduct. It might end up the longest-running negotiations in history.

Clearly, the whole code of conduct negotiations is a sham. If Asean and China cannot find agreement after 18 years of negotiations, shouldn’t we question the efficacy of the whole exercise? Also, the fact that China continues to avoid specific commitments to exercise self-restraint or to refrain from occupying uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, etc, should also tell us something.

It is time Putrajaya recognises that we have a serious problem with Beijing, that Beijing’s actions have been nothing but provocative, unfriendly and entirely inconsistent with its professed desire for close and friendly ties. A major rethink of strategies and policies is urgently needed.

Certainly, we can no longer afford to hold on to outdated strategies like the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) or rely on pithy statements like “no warships in the South China Sea” (the so-called Mahathir doctrine). Like it or not, the big powers (the US and China) are here; wishing they would go away is both naive and dangerous.

What is needed is a policy that seeks to balance competing big power interests; if China gets too strong and threatens our national security, we must pivot to the US (and other regional powers) and vice-versa.

We also cannot put our faith in moribund Asean processes like the search for code of conduct. For too long, countries like Cambodia and Laos which have no stake in the issue have been used by China to stymie a more robust Asean response to Chinese ambitions in the region. A new Asean working group comprising only those with skin in the game (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) should take the lead in regional discussions with China on its maritime claims.

It is imperative as well that Putrajaya strengthen our maritime defences. A clear message must be sent that while we want the best of relations with China, it cannot come at the expense of our sovereignty or territorial integrity. No one is suggesting military confrontation; a mix of diplomacy, flexible alliances and a willingness to engage China at every level might, in fact, be the best way of avoiding one.

China’s maritime claims present a credible threat to our nation. Putrajaya can either evolve a coherent diplomatic, political and defence strategy or it can continue pretending that our special ties will insulate us from Beijing’s ambitions. – July 20, 2020

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