“Malaysia Pushes Back on the South China Sea?”, by Tang Siew Mun

Commentary 2016/1, 15 March 2016.

In his speech at the Malaysian Armed Forces Staff College yesterday, Malaysia’s Defence Minister Hishammudddin Hussein offered some interesting insights on Malaysia’s evolving policy on the South China Sea disputes.

First, Hishamuddin’s remarks that “if the claims [on China’s militarisation of the Spratly Islands] are true, this demands a push back on China” is perhaps the clearest and strongest remark to date on taking on China openly in the South China Sea disputes. This is a far cry from the quiet diplomacy that has been the default Malaysian response to Chinese transgressions within Malaysia’s EEZ.
Second, Hishammuddin announced that in addition to discussions with the Australian defence minister, he will hold talks with his Philippine and Vietnamese counterparts. Will these talks – especially with the Philippines and Vietnam – lead to closer and more coordinated responses from the claimant states? So far, Malaysia has played it safe and avoided giving China the impression of diplomatic cooperation among the three parties.
Third, the defence minister underlined the imperative of gaining support from ASEAN member states. He expressed that “it is the ASEAN way to work together but there must be push back.” Will Malaysia lead the charge – along with the Philippines and Vietnam to strive for a stronger tone to effect what Hishammuddin repeatedly termed as “push back?”
While Hishammuddin’s strident tone is unexpected given the length that Kuala Lumpur goes to cultivating and preserving the warm Sino-Malaysian ties; in fact, the writing has been on the wall for some time that Malaysia is increasingly growing uneasy with Beijing’s growing assertiveness in Luconia and James Shoals.
Under Hishammuddin’s watch, the Defence Ministry has also announced the establishment of a new naval base in Bintulu and a marine corps – both measures to firm up Malaysia’s capability to protect its sovereign rights in the South China Sea. China must be watching with concern these developments.
* Dr Tang Siew Mun is Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute; email: tang_siew_mun@iseas.edu.sg
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