China Is Using a Strategy on Malaysia It Used to Great Effect on the Philippines
Malaysia was silent when China encroached on Philippine and Vietnamese waters. Now that it finds itself in the same situation, it seems like it doesn’t know how to react.
The Philippines was China’s guinea pig in the South China Sea. The Southeast Asian country was the U.S.' closest ally in the region, and China tested the strength of that partnership in the years that followed the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Standoff.
Using a combination of paramilitary ships and warplanes, it drove away Philippine vessels and fishing boats to lay claim and militarize five reefs within Philippine waters.
Now, it is using the very same escalation strategy on Malaysia.
There could be one reason for this: China believes the Philippines has failed to protect its interests in the West Philippine Sea and has allowed the Chinese to consolidate its presence in the area. It wants to test whether the same could work for Malaysia.
A U.S. think tank revealed that Chinese coastguard ships and warplanes are now engaged in "parallel escalation" off Malaysia, where they are sporadically harassing Malaysian vessels.
Earlier in May 2021, Malaysia scrambled its Hawk 280 fighters to intercept 16 Chinese warplanes that encroached on its airspace. That was just the beginning.
A Malaysian Hawk 280 Fighter
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) published on July 8, there were continuing minor standoffs between China and Southeast Asian states, including Malaysia.
Data from AMTI showed a Chinese coast guard vessel operating near the Kasawari gas field off the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak state on June 4—after Malaysia hired a pipe-laying vessel to work on the area.
The pipe-laying vessel was also shadowed by China’s Zhaolai-class patrol ship with the bow number 5403, AMTI said, but was later relieved by the larger CCG 5303, a Zhaoduan-class Chinese coast guard cutter—basically a warship pretending to be a coast patrol vessel.
Malaysia also had tense standoffs with China in April and May 2020, when another hired vessel was dogged by Chinese ships.
The pattern is eerily similar to the strategy China used on the Philippines prior to its expansion into the West Philippine Sea. In 2011, China prevented the Philippines from exploring Recto Bank for oil and gas deposits.
China has repeatedly rejected multilateral talks through the ASEAN to resolve disputes in the South China Sea and has insisted on bilateral talks. Analysts view this as a strategy to overpower claimant states at the negotiating table—a type of divide et impera strategy.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia are in dispute with China on claims in the South China Sea. So far, none of them has invoked the 2002 ASEAN-China Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and the countries have been divided in issuing a unified stance on China’s maritime adventurism in their waters.
Indonesia has denied it has a dispute with China, but regularly sinks Chinese vessels it catches within its exclusive economic zone.
But Malaysia is in a much better position to respond to China compared to the Philippines 10 years ago. It has submarines and a more powerful air force—deterrents the Philippines did not have when China created artificial islands within its waters. China respects power, no matter how small it is. Malaysia should project that if it wants to preserve its sovereign rights in its own backyard.