The Asian Voice

Dr M's stance on South China Sea: The Star columnist

When pressed, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said it was unhealthy when countries started asking if they should send their warships seeing other countries having theirs in these contested maritime areas. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - It was just a one liner among a host of policy shifts announced by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad after the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Malaysia, said the Prime Minister, preferred if there were no warships within its waters in the South China Sea and Straits of Malacca.

When pressed, he said it was unhealthy when countries started asking if they should send their warships seeing other countries having theirs in these contested maritime areas.

The buzz among officials is that Dr Mahathir was referring to the disputed South China Sea.

Recent rapid deployment of Chinese military assets in the area claimed by six countries - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and China - is causing concern.

Last month, China's airforce landed bombers on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea as part of a training exercise, triggering concern in Vietnam and the Philippines.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said China's conduct was designed to intimidate and coerce neighbours. Malaysia has yet to react to these developments - probably due to the country being in post-election mode.

And when it comes to the South China Sea, the previous administration preferred to deal behind closed doors.

Almost a month after forming the new government, with a foreign minister yet to be appointed, Dr Mahathir decided to tackle the issue for the first time, without naming any country.

Dr Mahathir probably realised that this is an issue Malaysia needed to address quickly because China has become bolder in the contested areas.

Foreign Ministry officials have kept the Prime Minister updated on issues as they need to gauge the direction he is taking on foreign policy.

The South China Sea issue is being treated more urgently for obvious reasons.

"We do not know if Dr Mahathir will maintain the same policy or position," said an official, referring to Malaysia's policy of not recognising China's claim.

"Most of our policies are the ones we have continued since the 1990s when he was the Prime Minister.

"When it comes to the South China Sea, the situation has changed. China was not that assertive in the 1990s but from late 2000 to 2010, they have become bolder.

"We have never recognised the Chinese claim but China's military might was different back in those days," said an official.

During Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's time, while officials were critical of China's increasing presence in the area, the former prime minister would not censure China openly, preferring quiet diplomacy instead.

But according to officials, behind closed doors, Najib was firm when he articulated his views to Chinese leaders and diplomats.

"I have witnessed how Najib would reprimand China during meetings. Even during bilateral meetings, he was quite firm and direct when expressing Malaysia's concerns on the presence of Chinese vessels in Malaysian waters," said one official.

Another concurred, saying that Najib would never compromise Malaysia's sovereignty when it came to the South China Sea.

So how will Dr Mahathir deal with China on the South China Sea issue?

Since he became the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir has been questioning dodgy business deals with China but on Wednesday, he addressed the South China Sea issue openly.

Beijing has expressed its anger over the Pakatan Harapan government's actions via a report in the Global Times, an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, but some diplomats feel bilateral relations would not be affected.

"In the past, there were strong statements from Dr Mahathir but that did not stop us from having friendly relations.

"This time, if we do it right, China will have to accept that they need to tweak their way of doing things with us on their presence in the South China Sea," said an official.

For sometime now, some quarters have accepted that China will continue to occupy some of the features they have put a stake on - just like what other claimants have done.

But no country, including the United States, expected China to reclaim and construct as quickly as it has done.

"We had foreseen that China would enhance their capabilities but not at the scale they are doing now," said an official.

It is disconcerting that Xi Jinping, who is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, had touted the country's readiness to fight "the bloody battle" to regain its rightful place in the world.

The Chinese leader's plan to build a "world-class" military by mid-century has also raised concerns about how it plans to use its increasingly modern forces amid regional frictions over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

While US President Donald Trump may be erratic in his response on certain policies on Asia, American officials said they will continue to increase their presence in the area because that is the only way to counter China.

Asean on its own cannot do anything - despite three of its members being claimant countries. At the same time, none of the other Asean dialogue partners are doing anything.

Dr Mahathir can continue to declare that no warships can ply Malaysian territorial waters but there is no stopping Chinese naval ships from remaining in the South China Sea.

The United States, in the meantime, will continue to antagonise China under what its military calls freedom of navigation voyages in the area.

What other options are there for other much smaller claimant countries? They can continue to denounce China's presence during meetings and conferences.

Since 2002, Asean and China have been negotiating for a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. This attempt is becoming less valuable with China's continuous military build-up.

Probably the message Dr Mahathir is trying to convey to China is that action speaks louder than words.

The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.

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