Malaysian PM: Ready to negotiate with Beijing on South China Sea dispute

Gan Pei Ling and Iman Muttaqin Yusof, 3 April 2023 © BenarNews

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 31, 2023. [Photo courtesy Malaysian Prime Minister Office]

Malaysia has let China know that it is ready to negotiate on the South China Sea dispute between the nations, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said on Monday, even as analysts warned that the Southeast Asian nation must not cave to economic pressure from the regional superpower. 

Anwar said he told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during his first official visit to Beijing last week that a small country such as Malaysia needed the resources from its offshore gas fields within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ)  in the disputed waters.

Meanwhile, a U.S. think-tank last week said that a China Coast Guard vessel, the world’s largest, had been patrolling for the past month near Malaysia’s Kasawari gas project off the coast of Sarawak, where it has harassed the Southeast Asian nation’s vessels. 

Anwar referred to the project, being developed by state firm Petronas, during a briefing on his visit to China to his department staff on Monday.

“In a few sensitive issues such as the South China Sea, with President Xi Jinping, I mentioned that Petronas has the largest oil rig built by our country and [will] continue [its] oil exploration program there. This overlaps with the region China is claiming,” Anwar said.

“I informed [him] that as a small country in need of oil and gas resources, we must continue [with our oil exploration]. But if the condition is that there must be negotiations to secure [our rights], then we are prepared to negotiate.”

Anwar had signaled a tougher stance in 2019 when he advocated for member-states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to jointly defend their territories against China’s provocations in the South China Sea.  

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the waterway overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ as well.

The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest waterways and has an abundance of natural resources. It is home to several flashpoints involving maritime disputes over oil and gas exploration projects and fishing rights.

China has been asserting its presence in the South China Sea by having its ships, military or non-military, at almost all times in the disputed waters, near Beting Patinggi Ali, which is known internationally as Luconia Shoals, analysts have said. In January, Malaysia sent a military ship to shadow a Chinese vessel patrolling close to the Kasawari project southeast of the Luconia Shoals.

Back then, Malaysia’s Defense Minister Mohamad Hasan told BenarNews that he did not think the vessel’s presence amounted to Chinese “intrusion” because both countries had overlapping claims in the area.

However, two days later, his ministry issued a statement saying the region is in Malaysia’s EEZ and that the Southeast Asian nation doesn’t recognize claims by any other party.

“The sovereignty of the country will continue to be preserved and will always be a priority of the Ministry of Defense and the Malaysian Armed Forces,” the statement said.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington noted in a report Thursday that the China Coast Guard vessel CCG 5901 arrived at Luconia Shoals on Feb. 17 and quickly took notice of operations at Kasawari, which is slated to begin production this year.

Kuala Lumpur again noticed, AMTI said.

“The Royal Malaysian Navy’s KD Badik, en route from peninsular Malaysia to Sabah, stopped at Kasawari on March 19,” AMTI’s report said.

“Available AIS data suggests it stayed west of the platform to avoid direct contact with the 5901 on the eastern side, but its signal was also intermittent, meaning that closer encounters could have taken place.”

As of Thursday, the 5901 was on patrol at Luconia Breakers, AMTI noted.

Beijing’s ‘somewhat spotty record’

Collins Chong Yew Keat, a foreign affairs observer at Universiti Malaya, said Kuala Lumpur’s negotiations with Beijing could be useful for Malaysia, although the PM’s statement was sketchy on details.

“It [China] would potentially agree to a more accommodative stance and a toned-down approach in dealing with the dispute with Malaysia, which might mean a toned-down presence of coast guard vessels or the setting up of direct hotlines or other means,” Chong told BenarNews. 

“All this is with the hope of buying trust and goodwill in trying to secure Malaysia’s commitment and confidence in seeing China as a genuine and historically long-lasting proven partner of socio-cultural value and a vital economic partner.”

Chong said China might do this to keep Malaysia closer than to western countries. 

“It remains to be seen – the scope and level of the negotiations – but it must not be based on a bilateral basis, as Beijing will exercise its burgeoning leverage and cards at its disposal now, to use economic tools and other measures to dictate more favorable terms to Beijing,” Chong said.

China is Malaysia’s largest bilateral trading partner since 2009. Trade between the two countries stood at U.S. $109 billion in 2022 while U.S. trade with Malaysia was an estimated $60.55 billion in the same year.

This year’s ASEAN chair, Indonesia, has restarted negotiations with China on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. ASEAN member-states and Chinese officials held their first round of talks in the second week of March. 

Indonesia and other ASEAN members want a code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea to be “effective, substantive and actionable,” Jakarta said after the talks, although Sidharto Suryodipuro, a director at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, skirted the issue when asked if the code would be binding.

“We try to avoid using the word binding because international legal experts do not all agree with the word binding. It is a concept that may be populist, but its practical value will depend on the content of that document,” he said.

Another analyst, Chong Ja Ian, from the National University of Singapore, said Malaysia should be aware that China does not always keep its word. 

“Beijing has a somewhat spotty record, like many major powers,” Ian told BenarNews. 

For example, China had reneged on its promise not to militarize the South China Sea features it occupied and reclaimed, he said.

“So, for ASEAN and individual Southeast Asian states, negotiations and institutions are clearly useful in managing ties with China given the asymmetry of power,” Ian said. 

“However, it is also important not to be naive about the limits of these arrangements and consider contingencies.”

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.