Malaysia is being courted by both China and the United States this week in a diplomatic tug-of-war over the South China Sea, highlighting the Southeast Asian state’s desire to maintain tight relations with both great powers as they notch up their rivalry.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told his country’s parliament he would bring up the subject of the South China Sea in calls with his Chinese and American counterparts, but accounts of his talk with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did not mention the waterway.
Instead, the two diplomats reportedly discussed cooperation in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Corridor (APEC) summit, opening speedier diplomatic channels, and supply chain stability. Malaysia has yet to release a statement beyond a social media post from Foreign Minister Hishammuddin.
On Thursday, Hishammuddin and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed “our two countries’ shared respect for international law and the rules-based maritime order in the South China Sea,” according to a statement issued by the American side.
Hishammuddin went a bit further, saying on his social media accounts that “matters relating to the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully based on universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982.”
The United States in early July began calling China’s claims in the South China Sea “illegal” on the basis of international law. Since that time, the U.S. conducted dual aircraft carrier maneuvers in the South China Sea and a trilateral exercise with Japan and Australia, which angered Beijing.
“Spurred by the Cold War mentality and selfish gains, Pompeo and his likes attempt to bind the international community to the anti-China, anti-CPC chariot,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin said during a daily press conference on July 31.
“However, they are doomed to fail because the world won’t buy what they are selling; peace-loving people won’t allow it; and the Chinese people won’t be intimidated.”
China has conducted its own drills in the South China Sea in recent weeks, flying fighter jets to Subi Reef and reportedly planning an exercise simulating a takeover of Pratas Island, a South China Sea feature occupied by Taiwan and classified as a national park.
More pressingly for Malaysia, China’s coastguard has maintained a constant presence over the past year at Luconia Shoals, a series of features in Malaysian waters off Sarawak state on Borneo Island. China has also reportedly sent ships to James Shoal, a completely submerged feature southwest of Luconia, deep within Malaysia’s maritime territory.
Azmi Hassan, a political analyst with University Kebangsaan Malaysia, said longer official statements were likely coming soon, and emphasized that no matter what was discussed, the Malaysian foreign minister had likely strayed from confrontation.
“I am confident that talks with China and the U.S. were done in a non-confrontational way because Malaysia needs both superpowers to balance out power in the South China Sea,” Azmi said. ”If we get it right, Malaysia will benefit from the presence of both in the South China Sea.”
The back-and-forth between China, the U.S. and Malaysia is happening as the U.S. seeks to shore up support for its confrontational new approach to China in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia more broadly, with an unusual flurry of calls this week.
In addition to Hishammuddin, Pompeo also spoke with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Thursday. Earlier in the week, he placed calls to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, and Bruneian Foreign Minister II Erywan Yusof.
The exchanges all stressed the importance of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” or called attention to the South China Sea specifically. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called his Indonesian counterpart Prabowo Subianto on Tuesday; the two reportedly talked about maritime security cooperation as well.
In related developments on Wednesday, Pompeo announced his new ‘Clean Network’ plan to cut Chinese technology companies, infrastructure, and smartphone applications out of the U.S. market, calling on other countries to pursue the same.
Malaysia has rebuffed both Chinese and U.S. activity in the South China Sea recently. After the Malaysia’s Auditor-General in July noted that Chinese ships had entered Malaysian waters 89 times between 2016 and 2019, Hishammuddin insisted that no Chinese ships had entered Malaysian waters since he took office in early March.
“[M]y stand is very clear: we will not compromise on our sovereignty,” he said at a news conference the next day.
But when the U.S. Navy sent warships near where Chinese vessels were harrying a Malaysian oil exploration effort in April, while urging China to stop “bullying” Southeast Asian nations over their resources, Hishammuddin responded with displeasure, signaling in a statement that such deployments could increase tensions and lead to destabilizing “miscalculations.”
At the same time, Malaysia has made a number of diplomatic statements that suggest it is increasingly concerned about China’s behavior.
A note verbale Malaysia submitted to the United Nations on July 29 states, “the Government of Malaysia rejects China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘ninedash line’ as they are contrary to the [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] and without lawful effect.”
The so-called nine-dash line outlines an area in the South China Sea to which China insists it has “historic rights.” Neither the nine-dash line nor the “historic rights” argument is supported under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), according to a landmark 2016 arbitral tribunal that assessed whether they were in accordance with international law.
Meanwhile, the 33rd U.S.-ASEAN Dialogue wrapped up Wednesday with attendees, including Malaysia, reaffirming “the need for peaceful dispute resolution in the South China Sea in accordance with international law as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling.”
Mention of the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling between China and the Philippines, which China does not recognize, was absent from last year’s U.S.-ASEAN Dialogue statement.
“To resolve the South China Sea issue with China, we must ensure that ASEAN’s solidarity is strong and we remain united as one bloc,” Hishammuddin told parliament Wednesday.
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