MALAYSIA’S reluctance to criticise China for sending a naval patrol to the disputed James Shoal last week is another demonstration of Kuala Lumpur’s softly-softly approach towards China when it comes to sovereignty disputes over parts of the South China Sea.
The cost of this conflict-avoidance approach has been non-existent and Malaysia has one of the stronger diplomatic relationships with China in the region.
But diplomacy exists only to serve a strategy and while the cost-free era of Malaysia’s non-confrontational approach to China might prevail for a while more, it will become increasingly difficult to uphold in the future.
The first Asean nation to formally recognise mainland China, which occurred in 1974, the two countries have built up a self-described “special relationship”. Far from an approach built on naivety, Malaysia’s approach to China has been carefully crafted to achieve a number of objectives.
The first was to build a strong economic and diplomatic bilateral relationship with Beijing to maximise the economic opportunities derived from China’s rise. To achieve this, Malaysia took a lead role in championing the notion of China’s self-proclaimed “peaceful rise” to a then sceptical region in the 1990s, smoothing the way for China’s claims of being a legitimate and constructive rising power in Asia.
But an important complement to Kuala Lumpur’s soft diplomacy was the periodic reaffirmation and deepening of strong bilateral relationships with traditional security and economic partners, such as the United States and Japan, to hedge against uncertainties of China’s rise. Although security hedging vis-à-vis China is widespread in the region, Malaysia was one of the first non-treaty security regional partners of the US to cobble together the dual approach of deepening diplomatic and economic relations with China and security relations with the US simultaneously.
The second objective was to use regional multilateral forums to engage and bind larger powers to agreed rules of engagement, hence, enhancing the leverage of smaller Southeast Asia states, in addition to attempts to extend Malaysian influence in these forums.
This required a non-confrontational approach towards China since publicly demonstrating Kuala Lumpur’s own faith in championing China’s “peaceful rise” was needed to reassure other Asean states that China’s future behaviour could be shaped. For Malaysia, it was far better to welcome China as a full participant in Asean-led forums to “socialise” the rising power than to prematurely pursue a counter-productive policy of diplomatic isolation.
To be sure, Kuala Lumpur’s approach has met with some success. China has emerged as Malaysia’s largest trade partner, even if some elements of both economies such as export-manufacturing in the electronics sectors are competitive as well as complementary.
Significant advances in the US-Malaysia military and defence relationship mean that Malaysia’s and the region’s interest in stability is enhanced. And while regional rules and norms enshrined in Asean forums are non-binding, violating or ignoring them do carry diplomatic costs that a still strategically isolated China can ill-afford.
Yet, there are increasing strains placed upon the foundations of Malaysia’s non-confrontational approach to relations to China. One is that Malaysia’s strategy towards China was cobbled together at a time when the latter was far weaker economically, militarily and diplomatically. While China cannot afford to become a diplomatic pariah in the region, growing power brings with it increased leverage and bargaining position.
If Malaysia’s and other regional approaches have only succeeded only in shaping China’s tactical behaviour, but not its aims and ambitions, then a more powerful Beijing in the future is likely to increasingly ignore regional wishes and admonitions.
Another is that China is now far more assertive in disputed areas while it is increasingly viewing its claims over almost 90 per cent of the South China Sea as indivisible. This means that while China’s disputes with the Philippines, for example, are filled with far more tension, such disputes with Malaysia are just as intractable and perhaps unable to be resolved through peaceful negotiation. This means that Malaysia’s non-confrontational and small target approach to China may still not help Kuala Lumpur hold on to its claims in the South China Sea to the future.
Moreover, as China becomes more assertive in the South China Sea, other Southeast Asian maritime states may well expect Malaysia to play a more proactive role in raising these disputes within Asean forums. Failure to do so could either mean a declining leadership role for Malaysia in Asean, or else the increased irrelevance of Asean.
Finally, Malaysia’s small target strategy towards China depends on the continuation of an implicit acquiescence by Washington and Beijing. Eager to reaffirm old strategic friendships in the region, America politely ignores Malaysia’s reluctance to confront China about awkward issues even as military-to-military relations between America and Malaysia improve.
At the same time, a still strategically isolated China turns a blind eye to Malaysia’s deepening military cooperation even as it ostensibly accepts the diplomatic niceties and compliments heaped upon it by Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia’s problem is that the patience of great powers is never infinite.