Malaysia’s submissiveness is China’s gain

Malaysia and Indonesia have seen numerous intrusions by Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) warships into disputed regions of the South China Sea in recent years. These are the seas off the coasts of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia and the waters north of the Natuna Islands in Indonesia. These two zones meet at Beijing’s “nine-dash line,” which Beijing has claimed as its exclusive maritime authority since 2009, encompassing control of the water column and continental shelf.

The finding of economically viable oil deposits in Kasawari (in 2011), located in Central Luconia off the coast of Sarawak, and Tuna Block (in 2014), located in the northern section of the Natunas, has prompted the rising severity of CCG encroachments. Beijing has urged that Malaysia and Indonesia stop oil exploration and extraction on the disputed continental shelf.

The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) and the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) have decided to “shadow” CCG warships that enter their seas rather than confronting and forcing them to leave. This technique should be understood in context of how Malaysia and Indonesia assess risk in the face of Beijing’s aggression.

Both countries see Chinese aggressiveness as reactive rather than anticipatory, and feel that in order for their economically advantageous ties with China to expand, Beijing should be allowed to display antagonism within mutually agreed-upon redlines.

The shadowing rule works like this: while CCG vessels move ahead, the RMN and TNI-AL go backward, and vice versa. The rule of engagement is straightforward: “jangan bikin gaduh,” or “do not escalate first,” as the Indonesian head of strategy at the Ministry of Defense recently stated. The do-not-escalate policy ensures that CCG vessels will not be approached by the RMN and TNI-AL if everyone practises restraint. As a result, the Chinese are permitted to remain in contested territories.

For four months in late 2021, the three countries waltzed about the oil rigs in this fashion. On June 4, the Sapura 2000, a pipelay barge owned and managed by Malaysia’s Sapura Energy, arrived at the Kasawari gas field. The RMN predicted the arrival of CCG ships and subsequently trailed them until the exploitation was completed in November. The RMN was not present to dissuade the CCG; rather, it was an expression of presence and a safety precaution in case the CCG opted to physically interfere with the operation.

Simultaneously, Beijing stationed the survey ship Da Yang Hao off the coast of Sabah when Malaysia completed drilling in the Siakap North Petai oil field from September to October 2021. Two auxiliary research vessels, a militia vessel, the Qiong Sansha Yu 318, and the CCG 6307 accompanied the Da Yang Hao. Despite their armed escorts, the RMN let these boats go about their business without any reaction other than monitoring them.

When the Noble Clyde Boudreaux semi-submersible rig arrived in the Tuna Block on June 30 to drill two appraisal wells, CCG warships took turns shadowing the operation until it was completed in November.

TNI-AL began trailing these boats, generally one at a time, in response to the presence of the CCG in the Tuna Block. TNI-AL occasionally followed CCG ships at close ranges of less than one nautical mile, although it avoided firing a warning shot against CCG warships, as it did in June 2016. As a result, the CCG ships felt secure enough to remain.

Malaysia and Indonesia have alternatives for dealing with Chinese maritime invasions. These alternatives vary from filing legal challenges to leveraging the interest of other countries in balancing Beijing. Instead, Malaysia prohibited the US and Australia from participating when the CCG and RMN clashed in the West Capella area in April 2020.

If the underlying issue was power disparity between Malaysia and China, Kuala Lumpur should have been overjoyed to have other external forces support it against Chinese intimidation. As a result, the more constrained shadowing efforts should be seen as a signal from both sides that Beijing needs to save face.

In Malaysia, the shadowing practice began shortly after Prime Minister Najib Razak took office in 2009. However, the consistency with which it has been used thereafter suggests that it has been chosen as the least-worst approach of dealing with China in the South China Sea. Balancing against Beijing is useless given Malaysia’s low deterrent capacity and refusal to spend extensively in border security.

However, it is also motivated by a large picture analysis. Although China’s “nine-dash line” has no international legal foundation, it cannot be convinced to modify its position, and given Malaysia’s importance of economic cooperation with China, some type of accommodation is essential. Malaysia has been subjected to increasingly intensive intrusions as a result of China’s deployment of military escorts to accompany its survey ships and coast guard boats.

Malaysian policymakers’ fear of Chinese dominance is mitigated as long as Malaysia can continue to secure its legal position and Beijing acts within the bounds set by Kuala Lumpur; both of these factors are combined with Malaysians’ continued belief that Beijing regards Malaysia as a premium partner.

The dance is dynamic, with rules that are constantly negotiated. China will press on, and Malaysia and Indonesia will continue to complain. Both countries appear to have accepted this as the fact of living close to a colossus.