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Responding to the latest satellite imagery released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative last week showing that China is rapidly militarising all seven of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea, Defence Minster Hishammuddin was uncharacteristically forthright in expressing his concerns.

Escalating deployment 

If the allegations were true, he said, the matter could threaten stability and security in the South China Sea. He also added that Malaysia remains firmly against “the escalating deployment of military assets in the disputed territories in the South China Sea, even though it meant standing up to the US and China.”

To further underline his concerns, he stressed that the issue of sovereignty was one the government would not take lightly even if it meant risking ties with China.

At a subsequent discussion on the same issue, he urged ASEAN countries “to unite on the South China Sea issue to avoid the superpowers such as the United States and China from dictating the region’s geopolitics. Alone we cannot face them but as a coalition of 10 countries, I am confident that even China cannot take us lightly or ignore our stand.” 

Leaving aside the rather puzzling reference to standing up to the US in discussing China’s aggressive pursuit of its maritime claims, standing up to China will take more than bravado; it will require a measure of leadership, coherence and realpolitik that the government does not as yet appear to possess.

A government in denial

Blowing hot and cold on the issue does not help as well.

A few months ago, for example, when his cabinet colleague, Shahidan Kassim, the minister with oversight for the coastguard, sounded the alarm over persistent Chinese intrusions into the waters around Beting Patinggi Ali (about 90 nautical miles off the coast of Sarawak), Hishammuddin downplayed the whole matter and even cast doubts on whether such incursions had actually taken place.

When the Chief Minister of Sarawak complained that Malaysian fishermen were being driven out of their traditional fishing grounds by Chinese naval vessels, Hishammuddin blithely shrugged off responsibility by suggesting that the chief minister have tea with the Chinese ambassador. 

And even now, in the face of yet more evidence that China is intensifying its military build-up in the South China Sea in pursuit of its claims, the minister continues to prevaricate by promising to write to his counterpart in Beijing to ascertain the facts.

How much more evidence does he need to be convinced of what the Chinese are up to? 

Talking tough for the home crowd

Surely, anyone with access to the internet will know that China has been building up its military presence in the region for years. It is already well documented. Besides, any defence establishment worth its salt must undoubtedly know what is going on in in its own neighbourhood. Feigning ignorance or resorting to the bureaucratic stalling tactic of seeking clarification is simply disingenuous.

For anyone who cares to look, China’s intentions are already abundantly clear.

China has long declared that the South China Sea, like the Taiwan issue, is a “core interest” that is fundamental to the security and well-being of the Chinese state and must be defended at all cost. Despite all the talk of wanting to settle disputes peacefully, its actions show that it intends to exercise complete sovereignty over the entire South China Sea one way or the other.

In pursuit of this core interest, China has not only built up its military presence in the region but is using its military might to aggressively assert de facto control over the South China Sea. As well, all across the South China Sea, the Chinese navy and coastguard have been harassing local fishermen in disputed waters while providing cover for the Chinese fishing fleet as an assertion of sovereignty.

It’s hard not to conclude, therefore, that Hishammuddin, like several of his UMNO colleagues, is either in denial or is simply talking tough for the home crowd but too beholden politically and economically to China to seriously engage the Chinese on this issue of critical importance to the nation’s security.

One has to wonder, as well, how credible Hishammuddin’s call to stand up to China is given that the prime minister has already declared China a “strategic partner,” a “true friend” and possible guarantor of Malaysia’s security.

Conflicting priorities

Clearly, when it comes to China, we are too riveted by conflicting priorities, too driven by political expediency and too ready to put profits before patriotism.

If the government is truly concerned about China’s actions in the South China Sea, therefore, it should initiate a comprehensive review of our foreign and defence policies as well as our relations with China.

Common sense dictates that until China is willing to demonstrate greater sincerity and transparency on the maritime file, until we have a clearer idea of China’s end game and our capacity to meet it, it would be prudent to be more circumspect in our dealings with China.

It makes no sense, as well, to conduct joint military exercise with or to buy patrol vessels from the very country that threatens our security.

Inviting the fox into the chicken coop 

Prudence also demands that we do not allow China to acquire the ability to manipulate our economy or our politics to further their own interests as they now on the verge of doing.

Looking to China for 1MDB-related financial support, in particular, is highly damaging to our national interests whichever way you look at it. The powers that be might dress up the whole issue with grand talk about friendship and economic opportunities but the dangers of giving a foreign power like China control over key national economic assets cannot be minimized.

It is unhelpful as well for UMNO and MCA to involve China in our domestic politics by enlisting China’s support to win votes.

Hishammuddin, for instance, stood proudly beside the Chinese ambassador as the ambassador distributed financial assistance to several Chinese schools in the minster’s constituency, no doubt hoping that it would play well with his constituents. Of course, when questions were asked, both the ambassador and the minister said the matter shouldn’t be politicized although that was exactly what they themselves were doing.

The MCA, for its part, presumably working on the assumption that China’s official endorsement of the party could buttress its declining political fortunes, went to great lengths to showcase the Chinese ambassador as well as a representative of the Communist Party of China at its recent annual general assembly.

The not so subtle message to Malaysian Chinese is clear: The MCA is China’s preferred choice and all Malaysian Chinese should get behind it. As well, Malaysian Chinese businessmen who wish to prosper from China’s investments, trade and business would do well to support the MCA.

Such unprecedented, reckless and ill-considered actions by our political parties only encourage interference in our domestic affairs and give foreign representatives unacceptable levels of influence and power over the internal politics of our country. It also compromises their integrity and independence.

We never allowed this in the past; we should not do so now when the dangers are even greater. 

Making the most of limited options

At the foreign policy level, there needs to be a well constituted inter-agency task force, perhaps headed by a special envoy, to coordinate our response to China’s maritime claims and work with other countries to develop a broader regional strategy.

In this connection, Hishammuddin’s announcement that the Chief of Navy “had been appointed Malaysia’s representative in the territorial disputes” makes little sense given that the issues involved go well beyond the jurisdiction and expertise of the navy.

The maritime claims file is a matter that is best managed by Wisma Putra which is, in any case, the lead agency when it comes to dealing with international political and security issues.

Of course, we will never be able to match China’s offensive capabilities on our own but we can better manage our defence capabilities, our international partnerships, and our diplomacy to better defend our sovereignty.

It is time to also recognize that ASEAN is no longer the viable option it once was in dealing with China. To all intents and purposes, ASEAN has been effectively neutered by China and tends to serve China’s interests more than it does its own.

To expect ASEAN to stand up to China, as Hishammuddin urged, is thus wishful thinking.

Like it or not, our best option at this point of time is to work more closely with countries like the United States, Japan, Australia and India which share a strategic interest in keeping the South China Sea open to all and ensuring that territorial disputes are settled peacefully and in accordance with international law.

At a strategic crossroad

We are now at a strategic crossroad vis-à-vis China. Either we act with resolve and determination to forge a relationship that truly enhances our national interests or find ourselves soon reduced to vassalage.

Minister Hishammuddin and his colleagues in cabinet owe it to all Malaysians to stop posturing, prevaricating and pretending and craft instead a realistic response to the threat from China.

[Dennis Ignatius]