Malaysia’s Diplomacy in the South China Sea: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

The South China Sea is not only economically important for Malaysia as a maritime nation but also its national security.

Tensions in the South China Sea Series: A Five-Part Series (Part 4)


The South China Sea has emerged as an area where political, economic and strategic rivalry are played out, affecting regional stability and security. The so-called South China Sea dispute centres on the overlapping claims involving China, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. At the ‘epicentre’ of this dispute is China, which has made claims over a large part of the South China Sea as indicated in its 9-dash line map, and has been contested by other claimants as it encroached their maritime claims and interests.  China’s assertiveness and military activities in the disputed area of the South China Sea further aggravated the situation and has led to a rethinking about Beijing’s rhetoric of its peaceful rise.  Its actions are also viewed with great concern by other extra-regional powers as they too have a big stake in the region making the eventuality of major power rivalry inevitable.  For Malaysia, this is more than just worrisome. In the past, it has shown a more conciliatory attitude towards Chinese assertiveness, in contrast to the policies exhibited by other claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines. But can this continue in view of more emboldened Chinese actions in the South China Sea that threatened Malaysia’s national security?  What are the considerations that it must weigh to preserve its security and territorial integrity in the face of threats arising out of the dispute and China’s unpredictable behaviour in the South China Sea?

The South China Dispute: Part of China’s Awakening?

The South China Sea lies at the nexus of Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, at the meeting of point of global sea routes offering the shortest route between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. It is important not only to regional countries for SLOC and commerce, but also for major powers such as US and Japan. The US, despite not being a claimant state is very much concerned with the dispute and has taken a strong stand against what is seen as China’s assertiveness in projecting its claims. The rise of China economically, accompanied by the inevitable political impact on the region, is both welcomed and a cause of concern.  It has been touted for a long time that when China wakes up, the world should pay attention to it. China has, in fact, awaken and making its way confidently across the globe, worrying many powers that have the same ambition and capabilities. But is the South China Sea dispute part of China’s awakening and reinforcing the notion that as a power rises, it will inevitably expand?

For Southeast Asian nations, the South China Sea is important to their economic well-being and security. Considered the “Mediterranean Sea” of Southeast Asia, coastal nations grew and developed economically, culturally and politically around it. China’s massive claims on the sea therefore has huge implications for these countries. Vietnam, for example, is a claimant state whose only strategic gateway to the oceans is the South China Sea, thus leaving it at economic and strategic disadvantage if its maritime access to the East Sea (as the Vietnamese call it) is hindered or left to the mercy of another power. The Philippines is another country that has vigorously opposed China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. Although the Philippines has access to the Pacific Ocean besides the South China Sea, it is geographically too exposed and thus vulnerable to China’s activities in the area. The US and other countries that are frequent users of the South China Sea have highlighted the importance of freedom of navigation as guaranteed under UNCLOS. China, however, disagreed with the interpretation that this would allow states to enjoy unqualified freedom of navigation and overflight within an EEZ, hence reacted forcefully to USNS Impeccable activities within its EEZ. Thus, the implications of dispute in the South China Sea are not confined to claimant states, but having wider impact.

But the most important question in the minds of many in Southeast Asia is: what has emboldened China in pursuing its claim with such assertiveness? So far, ASEAN has not produced a united common position vis-à-vis Chinese claims and position on the dispute. But its members have agreed that it must be resolved in a peaceful manner.  ASEAN states involved in the dispute have, however, indicated their disinterest in bilateral negotiations with China.

Malaysia’s Attitude: Softer, but Sometimes Stern

One of the criticisms levied against Malaysia in its attitude on the South China Sea dispute is that it has been “quiet”, “too soft” or even “too accommodating” vis-a –vis China on the issue.  What can one infer from Malaysia’s so –called “low profile” attitude and response to the South China Sea dispute? The South China Sea is important for Malaysia from economic, social, strategic and security aspects. It may not be in a “choke” situation as Vietnam in the matter, because Malaysia has access to the Indian Ocean via its control of the Strait of Malacca. But socio-culturally and strategically the South China Sea matters to Malaysia. It separates the two landmasses of the Peninsula Malaysia and the territories of Sabah and Sarawak, with strategic implications for defence and security of these three core areas.

The South China Sea is not only economically important for Malaysia as a maritime nation, but it is also as important from the perspective of national security. The three core areas that must be defended and secured are the Malay Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak.  Sabah in view of its geographical location is especially vulnerable to many threats from the seas around it. To strengthen the defence and security of the two territories, Malaysia made concerted efforts towards modernizing its navy and strengthening its defence forces in the area.  The submarine base in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah is a symbol of Malaysia’s will to protect its maritime territorial integrity. Still, in the event of aggression from another country with stronger capabilities, there is no guarantee that it can be met effectively. An increase in tensions in South China Sea will put additional burden on Malaysia’s effort to beef up its defence and security in Sabah and Sarawak which are exposed and vulnerable to the fall-out from the dispute.  As Malaysia’s national security is not just protection from external threats, such additional pressure will necessarily divert attention towards efforts at consolidating and maintaining internal peace and security.

Malaysia is a maritime nation; both the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea are important for its international trade.  For hundreds of years, the coastal states of Malaysia facing the South China were involved in maritime trade, maritime social and cultural life. They interacted with other nations in the region via the South China Sea. All these are deeply embedded in the consciousness of Malaysians, they have expressed it through poetry, songs and folk stories. With the recent acknowledgment of Malaysia as a maritime nation, more efforts are being done to collate and expose their connections to the South China Sea. The need for a peaceful environment in the South China Sea is vital for Malaysia’s national security and economy as a maritime nation, a necessity that is now being undermined by China’s growing boldness in its actions to secure its claims in the area.

Delicate Balance of Interests

Malaysia’s low –profile attitude vis-a- vis China in the dispute is a delicate balance to keep its good relations with China, at the same time to avoid being seen as too compliant with China on the issue. Could it be a sort of face-saving device, a well-known but unspoken trait of Malay traditional diplomacy and behaviour? This, however, should not be seen as a being weak, but rather an act of being reasonable in the face of a perilous uncertainty.  China, despite its “peaceful rise” claim, is still an unpredictable big power in the region, and smaller states remain cautious of an outcome of displeasing China. Unlike Vietnam, Malaysia does not have the geopolitical leverage that can be factored into consideration of China’s core interest which will deter China from taking actions that would disadvantage Malaysia. The Philippines may have the advantage of a certainty of reliance on American support to ward off Chinese threats. The same cannot be said of Malaysia. One of the aims of its non-aligned foreign policy has always been to keep the region free from external powers’ intervention.  Malaysia remains solidary with other ASEAN claimant states in opposing Chinese assertive policy in the dispute, but at the same time it does not want to stir up the dragon. However, it is equally important that China does not misconstrue this as being weak or subservient to a big power.  It is obvious that ASEAN claimants in the dispute want to avoid dealing with China on a bilateral basis, and Malaysia remains in solidarity with them in this matter. ASEAN has also made efforts to provide frameworks in which the parties involved in the dispute may resolve it peacefully.

The recent intrusion of Chinese aircrafts into Malaysian areas of South China Sea has again awaken a latent mistrust of China. Malaysia has demanded explanations from China to which China responded as a ‘regular exercise’, a response many in Malaysia thought implausible. Could this intrusion be an indication of boldness on the part of China as a result of Malaysia’s reticence in showing a more vocal opposition to Chinese activities in the South China Sea? Chinese behaviour seems to corroborate the view that it will bulldoze its way to achieve its ambition in the South China Sea regardless of what other countries have to say. Naturally, the intrusion reinforced public mistrust of China’s aims in the region, but whether or not that will change Malaysia’s policy towards China in the dispute is another matter. Malaysia has to stand on its own two feet and has to consider which is the less costly measure to deal with China’s assertiveness in the area.  Responding ‘softly’ may be a gentlemanly behaviour, but such a gentleman position, would require a certain amount of confidence in oneself. Is a small, peace-loving country with constraints in its capabilities, in the face of a big power’s blatant disregard for good neighbourhood policy condemned to accept such behaviour?  Malaysia, as stated by its foreign minister, is not subservient to a bigger power even if its policy in the South China Sea dispute is “mild” in comparison to the more vocal response of other ASEAN claimants.

For a small country with limited capabilities, it has little option but to navigate cautiously in these turbulent waters. But what does that entail? It cannot stray too far from the paths taken by other ASEAN claimants and must be seen in solidarity with them. Much as it would have desired to be more forceful in response to China’s assertive attitude, Malaysia could not do so in view of the uncertainty of the outcome. It is hoped that China sees Malaysia’s diplomacy in the South China Sea, specifically with regards to the overlapping claims as an opportunity towards creating a more conducive environment for peaceful negotiation and solution to the problem, therefore acts accordingly.  It may also be surmised that when Vietnam and Philippines voiced out their displeasure at China’s “might is right” attitude, they are also voicing Malaysia’s concern at such attitude.

In conclusion, the South China Sea remains a core issue in Malaysia’s national security and therefore needs careful handling. Its ‘low-profile’ response to the South China Sea dispute is not an indication of ‘reverence’ to big brother behaviour, but rather a way to manage its vulnerability as a small country vis-à-vis a big, assertive and unpredictable power with a global ambition. At the same time, it does not preclude Malaysia’s ability and willingness to remind the big dragon that in international diplomacy, superiority of firepower alone does not guarantee respect and legitimacy.

Part 1: South China Sea: The Need for Strong and Persistent Policies

Part 2: Indonesia and Maritime Rules-Based Order in the South China Sea

Part 3: Changing Realities for Malaysia in the South China Sea Dispute

Part 5: A Matter of Firm Resolve: The Philippine’s Strategic Posture in the South China Sea

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Ruhanas Harun is Professor at the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defence University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *