The foreign minister of Malaysia, Saifuddin Abdullah, wants his country’s navy to remain prepared to deal with any conflict in the South China Sea. His statement, made at the lower house of the Parliament, is seen as an indication that Malaysia might be thinking of moving away from the policy of non-militarization of the South China Sea it has observed till now.
Upgrading the military
“We would not want (conflict) to happen, but our assets … need be upgraded so we are able to better manage our waters should there be a conflict between major powers in the South China Sea,” Abdullah said in a statement (The Diplomat). He reminded the Parliament that Chinese coast guard vessels have a 24-hour presence off the Malaysian coast and that the country’s ships are smaller than these vessels.
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Malaysia will be tabling its first Defense White Paper by early December, which will take stock of the country’s military assets while also outlining the overall stand on various defense issues. In April, Malaysia bought four littoral mission ships manufactured by the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, with two more due for delivery by 2021.
In the past, Malaysia has issued protest notes to countries whenever there has been an issue in the South China Sea. “Protest notes at least help to keep one’s claim alive and serve as a record of official action undertaken to assert one’s claim. At least in Southeast Asia, such protest notes, even if issued, are often unpublicized… for these reasons of maintaining stability and preventing inflammation of the situation. But that does lead to questions about transparency,” Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, said to South China Morning Post.
However, just issuing these notes does not change the fact that the South China Sea is a touchy subject and will continue to be so. As such, Malaysia’s non-militarization policy might end up working against the interests of the country should a conflict actually emerge. Malaysia claims the waters and seabed that extend 200 nautical miles from its coast and also 12 islands in the Spratly archipelago, of which it occupies five. However, China denies much of Malaysia’s claims and has repeatedly asserted that it owns the entire Spratly Islands.
Conflict with Vietnam
A Chinese ship was recently involved in a 3-month-long tense standoff against Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea. According to Beijing, the vessels were in “Chinese-controlled waters” to conduct a scientific survey and departed once the work was done. However, experts point out that the ship only left after the oil rig at Vietnam’s Block 06.1 had completed drilling. The rig, operated by a Russian oil company, is seen as a threat by China.
“China doesn’t want any non-ASEAN companies to drill for oil in the South China Sea… China is determined to pressure Vietnam to end joint oil exploration and production with foreign partners in the area,” Ha Hoang Hop, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said to Reuters. Marine Traffic data shows that Chinese coast guard ships have been operating in the oil block since the standoff began.
At Vietnam’s National Assembly, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc assured lawmakers that his administration will not give any territorial concessions to China. Recently, the country banned a Hollywood animated movie Abominable after a scene depicted a map in which China was shown to own regions in the South China Sea that runs counter to Vietnamese claims.