What's Behind the New China-Malaysia South China Sea Fuss?
Plus Japan's coming security assistance changes; looking beyond new U.S.-Philippine EDCA sites; India's China-Myanmar spy post fears and more.
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This week’s WonkCount: 2631 words (approximately 12 minutes).
What the New China-Malaysia South China Sea Fuss Reveals
The fuss over Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s recent South China Sea comments are the latest manifestation of a more sobering reality: that the country’s political divisions are impacting strategic foreign policy questions which require substantive decisions that need to be carefully deliberated and made.
What’s Behind It
Anwar has unexpectedly come under fire for routing briefing remarks in parliament on China, where he said the country would continue its exploration activities while remaining open to negotiations on Beijing’s concerns. Former premier Muhyiddin Yassin alleged on Facebook on April 6 that the comments constituted an “indirect recognition of China’s claim,” charging that the statement was “weak, irresponsible and was tantamount to surrendering Malaysia’s dignity and sovereignty to a foreign power.” This prompted a clarification statement from the country’s foreign ministry.
The episode comes following Anwar’s trip to China. During the visit from March 29 to April 1, which took place as Beijing held its Boao Forum, Anwar did acknowledge that differences between the two countries existed and spoke about strategic developments like China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But Malaysian officials largely touted the significant traction in terms of economic engagement, an acknowledgement of the fact that Beijing has been the country’s largest trade partner for over a decade and its biggest investor last year. Much ink was spilled regarding the publicly cited total of 19 memoranda of understanding worth 170 billion ringgit ($38.5 billion) which Anwar called “historic.” Of course, the key question with such pacts is the extent to which they will be actualized (see a table below for some MOU examples).
Why It Matters
The incident bears watching within the broader prism of the developing dynamics of Malaysian foreign policy under Anwar, with the prime minister being active and vocal on international affairs even as the country is still divided and now on its fourth prime minister in four years. This is the third high-profile incident in less than three months where the foreign ministry has had to step in with such clarifications: we also saw this when Anwar was criticized for not meeting the king and crown prince in Saudi Arabia last month as mentioned in the last AWB, and when he said Myanmar should be “carved out” from ASEAN on his trip to Thailand back in February which made headlines.
Beyond the South China Sea fuss, the sobering realities of Malaysia’s South China Sea position remain unchanged and continue to require addressing, with Beijing looming as simultaneously a growing security challenge and also an economic opportunity as the country seeks sources for post-pandemic growth. China has steadily extended its maritime power down to the southern reaches of the South China Sea over the past few years and is now routinely obstructing energy exploration activities. Malaysia has tried to utilize a wide range of diplomatic, legal and security tools to manage its South China Sea position (see a broader treatment of the subject here, for example), yet it faces limitations including political instability and growing but still limited military capabilities, with concerns on underinvestment expressed privately and at times even publicly by the country’s own security and military officials.
Where It’s Headed
Clearer signals could emerge following more interactions between the two sides. Beyond suggestions of South China Sea talks, the two sides will also need to break ground on some of the agreements reached during Anwar’s visit. Apart from visits that could take place between the two countries, including Anwar’s invitation for Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Malaysia, both sides are commemorating the 10th anniversary of their comprehensive strategic partnership this year and will mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties in 2024.
The development of Anwar’s broader foreign policy will also be important to track. As the pattern of Anwar’s trips to date illustrates (see table below), he has unsurprisingly focused first on Malaysia’s neighbors and has only begun to venture outside of Southeast Asia for foreign policy visits. Beyond Anwar’s own foreign travels, Malaysia’s wider development of ties with countries like Japan, Australia and the United States will also be key to watch within its overall foreign alignments.
Shifting Risk Perceptions; India’s China-Myanmar Spy Post Fears; Mekong “Cooperative Nudging” under Scrutiny
Upward revisions “signal a less pessimistic outlook for Asia's economy in 2023,” but there are still a multitude of risk factors including U.S. monetary policy, rising inflation, slowing trade due to U.S.-China tensions and political instability, notes the latest iteration of a quarterly survey on perceptions regarding select key Asian economies compiled by the Japan Center for Economic Research and Nikkei. It includes several more granular details for longditudinal tracking, and you can read the full survey findings here.
“Indian government representatives…have shared satellite imagery with Myanmar counterparts that they said depicted Chinese workers helping to construct what appears to be a listening post on the Coco Islands…The workers were also seen extending an airstrip,” notes a Bloomberg piece citing anonymous Indian officials following a report on developments from Chatham House. Reports about Myanmar facilitating a Chinese military presence there date back decades, and the current allegations are limited to anxieties regarding China’s ability to monitor communications from naval bases and track missiles from test sites on its eastern coastline, rather than offensive Chinese military capabilities, the docking of Chinese research vessels or the permanent stationing of Chinese personnel. Myanmar government officials have thus far publicly denied such characterizations.
“Some people have a mission to point out the culprits. We do not have that mission…we prefer a more cooperative nudging approach,” Mekong River Commission (MRC) CEO Anoulak Kittikhoun said in an interview amid the 4th MRC Summit held in the Lao capital of Vientiane. The summit saw the adoption of a Vientiane Declaration as expected, but as the interview suggests, there remain contentious dynamics on various aspects including culpability and relative areas of focus. You can read the full interview with Third Pole here.