On 26 March 2013, the People’s Liberation Army Navy conducted a major naval exercise in the South China Sea, close to what China calls Zhengmu Reef. News of the exercise would have been lost amid the constant stream of reports on the disputed waters had it not been for the fact that Zhengmu Reef, which is known as Beting Serupai in Malay and James Shoal in English, lies at the southernmost tip of China’s expansive maritime and island claims in the South China Sea. More specifically, it’s some 80 kilometres away from Malaysia and 1,800 kilometres from the Chinese mainland. Rarely have the Chinese made their presence felt at the extremities of their maritime claims in the region. And never have they brought such firepower with them—four vessels led by the PLA Navy’s latest amphibious landing ship, the Jinggangshan.
While serving as a sign of China’s rising assertiveness, the exercise was also notable for the distinct lack of a visible public reaction from Malaysia. Neither the Malaysian Prime Minister nor the Foreign Ministry has made even the most perfunctory statement on the matter. Never mind that a Malaysian naval offshore patrol vessel, the KD Perak, monitored the exercise and issued orders for the PLA Navy to leave the area. And never mind that a standard protest may have been quietly expressed through diplomatic channels. In contrast to how such exercises are greeted in Hanoi and Manila, the Malaysian public response has been a deafening silence. So what explains Malaysia’s muted reaction to this overt demonstration of China’s growing power?
Part of the explanation lies in Malaysia’s perception of its relationship with China. It’s seen as unique—perhaps even deserving the term ‘special’—among those of its neighbours in Southeast Asia. This isn’t to say that Putrajaya sees itself as having the most intimate of ties with Beijing, and there’s little doubt that Cambodia and Myanmar have closer political relations with China. Nor does it mean that nobody in Malaysia sees China as a potential long-term security challenge. As one might expect, there are some within the Malaysian Armed Forces who observe China’s military build-up with a degree of unease.
But there’s certainly a sense that Malaysia and China have implicitly agreed to pay heed to each other’s legitimate interests and go to extra lengths to avoid playing out their disputes through the media. Furthermore, there’s a perception, at least on the Malaysian side, that the relationship is highly prized and historically significant.
That significance derives from the establishment of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and the People’s Republic of China in 1974. Indeed, Malaysia was the first member state of ASEAN—which then also comprised Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand—to have formal relations with China. At a time when Malaysia and many other ASEAN member states had to contend with communist insurgencies—all backed in varying degrees by Beijing—a rapprochement with China should have been unthinkable. Nonetheless, the Malaysian prime minister at the time, Tun Abdul Razak, moved to establish relations with China, partly in the hope that Beijing would stop supporting the insurgent Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). Beijing didn’t immediately accede to Tun Razak’s request, but by the late 1970s it was gradually being met.
Whether or not Tun Razak’s overtures were instrumental in Beijing’s subsequent curtailment of its support for the CPM can certainly be disputed. Given that the late 1970s saw the beginnings of China’s reform and opening up, a more accommodating posture towards its neighbours could well have been expected in any event.
But in Malaysia, ‘Razak to China’ continues to be regarded as a signal event in the country’s diplomatic history. It’s a notion that China seems keen to perpetuate, and that suits Malaysia just fine. For instance, whenever Malaysian officials visit China—even to the most remote parts of the country—Chinese officials rarely neglect to thank Malaysia for being the first ASEAN member state to establish diplomatic relations with China. While it’s likely that such sentiments are expressed on instructions from Beijing, they nevertheless generate a positive atmosphere for interactions between the two countries. They also serve to underscore the idea that China has a long memory, that it never forgets kindnesses (or injuries, for that matter).
All of this might be read cynically as a capitulation to China’s growing might and a naive acceptance of its diplomatic rhetoric. But would it make sense for Malaysia to adopt a more muscular approach towards China?
It’s hard to argue that it would, at least for now. In general, China’s treated Malaysia with kid gloves on their overlapping maritime claims. Unlike in the case of the Philippines and Vietnam, China hasn’t publicly objected to Malaysia’s oil and gas explorations in the South China Sea. Looking at the bigger picture, China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner, and no other Southeast Asian country trades as much with China as Malaysia does. In 2012, the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur was the second-largest issuer of Chinese visas in the world. Given the intensity and benefits of the relationship, it hardly makes sense for Malaysia to depart from its current policy, which puts a premium on quiet diplomacy with China.
Nonetheless, Malaysia’s unlikely to allow itself to become so overwhelmed by China that its independence of action in the international arena is stymied. In other words, Malaysia will hedge against becoming ‘Finlandised’ by China. This primarily takes the form of Malaysia’s strong and growing defence relationship with the US. The burgeoning defence ties between the two countries are perhaps best illustrated by the increasing number of US naval ship visits to Malaysia, which grew from single digits annually in the previous decade to over 30 in 2011.
Even so, there are distinct limits to the relationship between Malaysia and the US. Washington remains deeply unpopular, or is at least viewed with suspicion, among significant sections of Malaysia’s Muslim-majority population. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Washington’s continuing failure to act as an impartial broker in the Palestinian–Israeli peace process have served to entrench a negative view of the US among some Malaysians. So seriously does the Malaysian Government view such sentiments that few details of the 1984 Bilateral Training and Consultative Group (BITACG) Agreement, which underpins the defence relationship between Malaysia and the US, have ever been made public.
But might those limits in the Malaysia–US relationship be eroded over time, perhaps as China’s might increases? For now, there seems to be very little appetite in Malaysia for a hard balancing approach. Rightly or wrongly, the Malaysian foreign policy establishment continues to view China in positive terms. Even as Malaysia heads towards a highly competitive general election on 5 May, none of the political parties has thus far made even the barest mention of the Zhengmu Reef incident. It’s as if the Malaysia–China relationship’s been placed in a special, politicisation-resistant category. Clearly, the benefits of a strong and close relationship with China remain irresistible.
So, for now, Malaysian leaders will continue to embrace China’s rise and give it the benefit of the doubt. They’ll continue to downplay regional anxieties about China’s military build-up. But if China decides that amphibious landing ships are the best tools to resolve disputes, Malaysia may well need to rethink its present approach.
Shahriman Lockman is a Senior Analyst in the Foreign Policy and Security Studies program at ISIS in Malaysia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A version of this article was originally published in the April 2013 edition of OrrizonteCina, a newsletter on contemporary China edited by the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and the Torino World Affairs Institute (T.wai).