South China Sea: China turns to Malaysia and Indonesia amid rising tensions

(SCMP) – China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe on Tuesday met his Indonesian counterpart Prabowo Subianto in Jakarta, a day after visiting Malaysia’s leader in Kuala Lumpur, as Beijing seeks to balance US influence in the Asia-Pacific amid rising tensions in the South China Sea.

Wei is set to visit Brunei next, followed by the Philippines, according to sources. The visits come just ahead of a series of virtual Asean meetings running from Wednesday through Saturday, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expected to attend.

While Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea, it has clashed with Beijing over Chinese fishing ships entering its exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands and rejected the nine-dash line that China uses as a basis for its claims in the waters.

But Indonesia, which is facing recession while grappling with rising Covid-19 cases, has turned to a Chinese drug maker to secure a supply of its potential vaccine and continues to welcome Chinese investments for economic growth.

Prabowo’s spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak told This Week in Asia that Wei’s visit was a “normal reciprocal courtesy call” made after the Indonesian defence minister visited China last year.

Dahnil said the ministers discussed the continuation of bilateral cooperation, and reiterated that Indonesia was “committed towards dialogue and peaceful [resolution]” in the South China Sea.

On Monday, Wei told Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin that China was willing to work with Asean countries, including Malaysia, “to meet each other halfway” to keep the peace in the disputed waterway. He added that safeguarding stability in the South China Sea was a shared responsibility of China and Malaysia, official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.

Wei, who also met with Malaysian Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, said China was committed to strengthening defence cooperation between the two countries and to constantly advancing military-to-military ties. Muhyiddin said Malaysia was willing to work with China to strengthen bilateral cooperation in all fields including defence, education, economy and trade, among others.

Commenting on Wei’s visit, Malaysia’s former deputy defence minister Liew Chin Tong warned that the South China Sea could be “the Balkans of this part of the world” in which great powers could “sleepwalk into crisis and war” as there was no buffer between the US and China.

“In the context of heightened US-China tension, no other region is of higher stake and more consequential to China’s rise than maritime Southeast Asia. I have consistently been advocating that China must treat maritime Southeast Asian states as its No 1 foreign policy priority,” he said.

“This is a region that is geographically close to China, but the states in the region are cautiously hedging between the US and China.”

Last week, Luo Zhaohui, China’s deputy foreign minister for Asian affairs, accused the US of making repeated provocations and trying to force countries in the region to take sides between Beijing and Washington.

“A troubled South China Sea only serves the interests of the US and its global agenda, while countries in the region have to bear the costs,” he told a gathering of retired government officials and maritime and legal experts from the region.

Liew said China must not view this region only “from the perspective of great power competition”, as these states have agency and also a domestic audience that China had to win over.

“China must put a lot more into winning hearts and minds in maritime Southeast Asia. Wei Fenghe’s visit can be read in this context,” Liew said.

He noted that Malaysia was “relatively friendly to China” compared with other maritime Southeast Asian states.

Wei’s visit to Malaysia did not come as a surprise as China had increased its defence diplomacy around the world in recent years, said Zachary Abuza, a professor specialising in Southeast Asian security issues at the Washington-based National War College.

“Malaysia is an important country for China, in that it is such a major recipient of [Belt and Road Initiative] funds and other Chinese investment,” he said, referring to Beijing’s plan to grow global trade.

“The visit comes days before the 53rd Asean summit meeting, when there is growing unhappiness with China on a host of issues: the damming of the Mekong, the South China Sea and increasingly assertive diplomacy.”

Abuza said China was “clearly taking advantage” of the fact that the United States has abdicated leadership in regional security and economic issues.

“We lost a lot of influence and leverage in the region. China is already the largest trading partner of almost every state in Southeast Asia, a source of investment and provider of loans, some predatory, others not.”

Despite the growing unease about China in the region, Southeast Asian governments remain more amenable to Beijing than to Europe, Australia and the US, Abuza said.

Malaysia and Brunei are two of the four Southeast Asian states opposing Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, through which US$3.4 trillion worth of international shipping trade passes every year. But unlike Vietnam and the Philippines, they have made few public statements on the issue, even as Beijing built artificial islands and sent coastguard and research vessels to the resource-rich area to strengthen its claims.

Malaysia tends to never publicly criticise or call out China on the South China Sea as “that is not Malaysia’s diplomatic style”, Abuza said.

“What we do see with Malaysia is that they speak through legal filings at UN bodies. And if you read their latest filings, [they are] clearly highly critical of China and its claims,” he said, adding that Malaysia is too small to confront China so it tries to use international law to bolster its claims.

“Malaysia’s real problem in the South China Sea is the Philippines, which continues its tenuous claim to Sabah. This has resulted in Asean really being unable to find a common ground to counter China,” Abuza said. The two countries have exchanged sharp words in recent weeks after Philippine Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin Jnr wrote on social media in July that Sabah was “not in Malaysia”.

Despite China’s warships and fishermen encroaching on Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, defence ties between Malaysia and China remain “very cordial”, said political analyst Azmi Hassan of University Technology of Malaysia (UTM).

In recent years, Chinese submarines have docked at the Sepanggar naval port in Sabah state to refuel, and this is expected to continue, Azmi said.

“It’s no secret that Malaysia plays host to these Chinese warships and submarines on quite a regular basis, except that the local media rarely highlights the news due to its sensitivity.”

He said the warships are tied to South China Sea missions and the reason they are allowed to dock is to “demonstrate that Malaysia doesn’t regard the Chinese as the enemy” and that the South China Sea issue could be resolved “amicably”.

Azmi said Malaysia “not only played host to China’s but also the US’ warships” and it was only recently that Chinese warships had docked at the country‘s naval facilities.

However, over the past two years very few Chinese or US ships have docked in Malaysia, with none from China docking in 2020, according to sources.

“China will always be a more reliable partner not only in trade but all other sectors compared to the US … since the relationship is based on mutual trust and benefit.”

Azmi said the US was viewed as “less reliable” because of President Donald Trump, who is seen to be getting involved in the South China Sea dispute in an attempt to “score points” against China’s President Xi Jinping, rather than out of any desire to protect Malaysia.

“Malaysia is very wary of this. Maybe I’m very biased towards China, but I think it’s the reality where Malaysia needs to be more pragmatic since we’re a small nation,” Azmi said.