KUALA LUMPUR • As the United States and Japan tussled with China over the wording of a concluding statement at an Asian security meeting in Kuala Lumpur this week, caught in the middle was host Malaysia.
Plans for a joint statement were eventually dropped by the Malaysian government due to disagreements over the disputed South China Sea. US and Japanese officials wanted to address Beijing's island- building. Chinese officials resisted.
The episode illustrates the thin line Malaysia and other smaller South-east Asian states must walk in balancing ties with China and the US, especially since a US warship last week challenged the territorial limits around one of China's man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago.
Malaysia's biggest trading partner is China, according to Malaysian government statistics and, in contrast to other countries with competing claims to the South China Sea, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, it has typically played down concerns over China's expanding military reach.
Nevertheless, US defence officials say Malaysia, along with other states in the region, has sought a greater US military presence to counter Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.
"We see the increased demand... really across the board in the region," said a senior US defence official. "Malaysia's a good example."
Yesterday, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter visited the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea, accompanied by Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, as he wrapped up a three-day stay in Kuala Lumpur. Mr Carter called the ship's presence "a sign of the critical role that US military power plays in what is a very consequential region for the American future".
US Marines and their Malaysian counterparts will also hold a joint amphibious training exercise next week in eastern Malaysia.
Malaysia has a long-standing arrangement to service and supply US military ships and aircraft as they pass through the region, making them frequent visitors to its ports. The number of US ship visits has steadily risen, from a handful per year in the early 2000s to more than 30 visits in 2011, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin this week highlighted the quandary for smaller states, saying he hoped nations outside the region would not raise tensions. "We will continue to engage China. We will continue to engage the US," he said. "The fact that we are able to engage them and actually look at the reality... That is a clear message to the major powers out there."
US and Western diplomats say they have been keen for several years for Malaysia to pay closer attention to mounting security challenges in the region, particularly from China. Chinese warships have staged regular patrols off James Shoal off the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
Diplomats and analysts who have viewed satellite images say Chinese coast guard ships now also maintain a semi-permanent presence at South Luconia Shoals, to the north of James Shoal.
"Malaysia's role and importance in broader security issues, particularly the South China Sea, is only going to grow more strategic," one Western diplomat said. "It is a matter of pushing and nudging them into doing the right thing, rather than expecting them to take a lead and confront China."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE