On Monday, Malaysia’s Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced plans to coordinate South China Sea efforts with Australia. Reuters:
Hishammuddin said he would meet Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne to ensure efforts are made to “hold China to their promise of not placing military assets in the area”.
“If the reports we’ve received from various sources regarding the buildup and placement of military assets in the Spratlys are true – this forces us in a pushback against China,” Hishammuddin told reporters.
Hishammuddin also said he hopes to work with Vietnam and the Philippines to keep China honest. Malaysia’s language indicates more caution than other countries have displayed. The United States has regularly characterized Beijing’s South China Sea activity, which includes building runways, docks, and radar systems, as “militarization” since last summer.
Still, even with the hesitation, this rhetoric is more aggressive than we have previously seen from Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia has long balanced its foreign policy against its relationship with Beijing. However much officials in Kuala Lumpur worry about China’s power, they are also tied down by it: Beijing is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. Yet internal Malaysian politics has long had strong anti-Chinese currents—despite or, more accurately, because of Malaysia’s large minority Chinese population. (The ethnically Malay and religiously Muslim ruling coalition uses a strident identity politics to wield and consolidate power.) In several ways, the new South China Sea efforts bring Malaysia’s foreign policy more in line with its domestic politics.
Over the past six months, we’ve seen signs that Malaysia might be leaning away from Beijing. Last September, Bloomberg reported that Kuala Lumpur would grant American spy planes access to Malaysian runways. Then, on December 1, Malaysia’s naval chief called for more explicit rules delineating behavior in the South China Sea. His remarks were widely interpreted as a response to Beijing’s island building and fortification efforts. Still, all the secrecy and coded language meant Malaysia’s developing China policy was difficult to decipher. Hishammuddin’s remarks yesterday make everything much clearer.
It’s worth noting that Malaysia isn’t the only country to be getting more confrontational with China. Australia has also come off the sidelines in the past few months. The new regional dynamics are the consequence of China’s own behavior: with Beijing getting more assertive, other regional powers are responding in kind. As the island-building continues over the next year, look for more multilateral reactions from previously-hesitant Asia Pacific powers.