In the latest episode of the saga involving territorial disputes in South China Sea (SCS), Malaysia will reportedly lodge a formal diplomatic protest with China over the presence of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel near Luconia Shoals, a series of islets and reefs well within Malaysia’s claimed 200-nm exclusive economic zone. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, will supposedly “raise the issue directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping”.
This recent round of somewhat vocal reaction from Malaysia with regard to perceived Chinese assertiveness in SCS represents, at least superficially, a departure from previous relatively low-key responses in similar instances.
To better understand this apparent shift in Malaysian attitude toward alleged Chinese “incursion” into claimed Malaysian waters, the larger pictures of both regional outlooks and overall Sino-Malaysian relations should be taken into account.
Malaysia assumed the annual rotating chairmanship of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) earlier this year. Amidst the continued global economic malaise, the priority for this year’s ASEAN agenda falls not unexpectedly on regional economic development. Specifically, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), a free-trade pact reducing and removing most tariffs and non-tariff barriers among ASEAN members, is scheduled to come into force by the end of the year. AEC will also become the basis for negotiations leading toward the even larger Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) involving not only ASEAN but other regional neighbours including, most prominently, China.
As ASEAN chairman, Malaysia thus has its hands almost full this year handling myriad multilateral economic matters. However, the evolving territorial disputes in South China Sea, to which Malaysia is also a claimant party in addition to three other ASEAN members, continue to loom ominously in the shadow.