In what should be considered a surprising turn of events, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, Zahid Hamidi, slammed China’s South China Sea behavior in a public address.
Speaking to a party congress in Kota Kinabalu, the deputy PM lashed out at Beijing’s questionable yet resolute historical claims in the South China Sea and criticized Chinese adventures 3,218 kilometers from the Chinese mainland and just 155 kilometers away from the Malaysian state of Sabah. According to the Malaysian newspaper The Star, Zahid rendered China’s narrative invalid in a statement in which he chose not to use China’s name and instead referred to it as a regional superpower.
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“We have a country that is building 3km-long airstrips and port facilities, supposedly for its coast guard,” Zahid said. “Does this make sense when that country’s mainland is more than 3,000kms away?” he asked rhetorically.
Confusion on Malaysian approach to South China Sea issue
However, the way the deputy PM lashed out at China while not openly using its name should not come as a surprise as Malaysia has always adopted a “play it safe” approach to the South China Sea, talking about its interests as one of the claimants of the disputed waters while also not crossing a particular line that could disrupt the country’s bilateral ties with Beijing. However, it is clear that Kuala Lumpur will struggle to maintain such an approach for a longer period of time now that China has started making bolder and more frequent maneuvers into Malaysian waters. These encroachments have agitated state officials who are slowly becoming very public about their concerns.
Another important aspect of Malaysia’s position that cannot be ignored but is often forgotten is how it all shapes the country’s domestic politics. Not only do Chinese encroachments into Malaysian waters threaten the country’s claims and its abundant natural resource activities, these intrusions also put a big question mark over the territorial integrity of the state since the South China Sea divides East Malaysia from Peninsular Malaysia.
Moreover, Chinese intrusions have led to many people in the country criticizing the Malaysian national government’s inability to protect Sabah. The government’s profile has been affected since the invasion of Philippine militants in the Lahad Datu incident in 2013.
Time for South China Sea policy to change
Many local groups within Malaysia are infuriated at the country’s traditional policy on the South China Sea and are asking for the government to adopt a more concrete policy — one that better reflects the country’s national interests and right to freedom of navigation. Zahid meanwhile, has urged Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) and other groups to be proactive in sending a clear message by opposing actions of any nation which looks to encroach into Malaysian territory.
However, despite these rebukes and other subtle signals made by officials, such as the Malaysian defense minister’s visit to a U.S. aircraft carrier with his American counterpart, Prime Minister Najib is still looking to maintain cordial relationships with Beijing and does not really want to risk damaging bilateral ties with the regional superpower by being too blunt and vocal about his country’s issues with what’s happening in the South China Sea.
With so many officials stating different opinions on the South China Sea issue, it is quite clear that the governments are no longer be on the same page which. The PM, for instance, is clearly in a quagmire and is struggling to find a resolution to this issue that does not hamper economic ties with Beijing. The two leaders attended a 45-minute meeting at Xi Jinping’s request at the Apec Summit. Following the meeting, Najib claimed that both nations are enjoying the best relations in the history of bilateral relations between them.
“Xi and I agree the state of bilateral relations is at its best based on mutual trust and friendly cooperation between the two countries as close partners,” Najib said after the 45-minute meeting.
Moreover, it is quite clear that PM Najib Tun Razak is using appeasement as his main weapon in a bid to not offend Beijing in anyway. During the meeting, according to the Malaysian Digest, the Malaysian supremo stated that China is really impressed with the country’s “non-confrontational approach” towards the South China issue, which goes to show that Kuala Lumpur is more than willing to play it nice with Beijing as long as it’s convenient.