Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

The South China Sea Conundrum: China's Strategic Culture and Malaysia's Preferred Approaches

Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

The South China Sea Conundrum: China's Strategic Culture and Malaysia's Preferred Approaches

Article excerpt


The South China Sea disputes involving six claimants of whom Malaysia is one of them1 continue to remain a major torn in bilateral and regional relations. Over the course of 15 years since the issuance of the ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in November 2002, practically all claimant states have beefed up their claims to islands and reefs in the South China Sea by reclaiming land, building structures and expanding runways, and in the process further strengthening their own control over the features that they have occupied. This runs contrary to the spirit of the Declaration where all the 10 ASEAN member countries and China have officially declared "to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability" (ASEAN Website, n.d.).

In recent years, the spotlight has been trained on China owing in part to its unbending historic claims to the South China Sea and its increasing assertiveness in ensuring that its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights are safeguarded. One case in point was the placing of its HS-981 oil rig in disputed waters with Vietnam in 2014 that later sparked violent anti-Chinese protests. While Beijing is quick to defend its action and view the area as under its jurisdiction despite Hanoi's contestation, it shows intolerance to Vietnam and the Philippines when they tried to carry out oil and gas explorations in areas claimed to be within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Tensions flared in 2007 and 2011 when the two countries were pressured by China to stop their activities including issuing warnings against foreign energy companies involved (Glaser, 2011). Incidences that went beyond the overlapping claims have also been recorded of late. In 2015, Malaysia was shocked to learn from reports that a 4000 ton Chinese vessel was identified near Luconia Breakers and a Chinese coast guard vessel has been anchored at Luconia Shoals, about 150 km from the coast of Sarawak, for the past two years. A year later, Indonesia's Natuna Island came under the limelight when China responded to Indonesia's detaining of Chinese fishermen and trawlers near the island by claiming the waters around the island as rightfully its traditional fishing ground.

Escalations of tensions in the South China Sea have been squarely blamed on China's increasing assertive and expansionist behaviour. Chinese vessels have been reported to collude or harass neighbouring coast guard ships and fishing trawlers as well as the USNS Impeccable surveillance ship, and have acted on occasions to protect their countrymen's fishing boats that have strayed into neighbouring countries' EEZs from being detained at sea. Incidences of emboldened Chinese trawlers ramming and sinking foreign fishing vessels and a 4.5-tonne South Korean coast guard boat in disputed waters have been reported as well (Perlez, 2014; Williams, 2016). China's active pursuit of strengthening reefs and outposts that it occupies through land reclamation activities and the building of military facilities have not only stoke apprehension in the other claimant states but also posed a strategic threat to the maritime influence and interests of the US in the region.

Is Beijing launching an offensive to disrupt the power balance in the region and substantially reduce the threat that the US has been posing to Beijing's strategic ambitions or is it merely interested to exert its claims and defend its maritime and territorial rights based on historical arguments? Insights to this question lie in deconstructing China's strategic culture and understanding how ideational factors play a role in affecting policy considerations. This is pivotal when discussing appropriate responses and options for Malaysia as it utilizes bilateral and regional (through ASEAN) approaches to protect its sovereign interests.

Malaysia, unlike its ASEAN counterparts who have resorted to actions, some unconventional, to check China's assertiveness - Vietnam's violent clashes with China, Philippines' unilateral decision to take China to the arbitration court to seek international legal recourse, and Indonesia's eccentric move to blow up foreign fishing vessels, has been by far the quietest and reserved in expressing its stand against China. …

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