Lessons from Paracel Pt III: Talking softly and carry a big stick

Existing oil and gas fields, multiple claims and China's imaginary 'territory' in South East Asia

Existing oil and gas fields, multiple claims and China’s imaginary ‘territory’ as per the unsubstantiated Nine-Dash-Line in South East Asia

How Malaysia treat its relationship with China is still an enigma. Malaysia values trade and close diplomatic relation with China but extremely worried on the latter’s unsubstantiated claim based on an imaginary Nine-Dash-Line (which include the recent PLA Navy ‘apperance’ at James Shoal (Beting Serupai) which is 60 nautical miles off the coast of Sarawak) in the South China Sea.

The Diplomat article:

‘Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick’: What is Malaysia Playing At?

Malaysia and China have had maritime run-ins with mixed results. What is Malaysia’s endgame in the South China Sea?

February 28, 2014

For the past two years China has dispatched a flotilla of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships to the farthest reaches of the South China Sea to assert Beijing’s claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters and features lying within its nine-dashed line. Beijing’s ambitious claim covers an estimated eighty percent of the South China Sea.

On each occasion PLAN warships sailed to James Shoal, or Beting Serupai in Malay, eighty kilometers off the coast of East Malaysia. According to Bill Hayton, who is completing a book on the South China Sea, China’s claim is based on a double historical error.

The first error occurred in 1933 when the Republic of China set up an official Inspection Committee for Land and Water Maps to catalogue every part of Chinese territory on land and sea. The Inspection Committee lacked the means to carry out any maritime surveys and so it plagiarized from a contemporary British Admiralty map and attempted to translate the names of maritime features into Chinese.  James Shoal was erroneously translated as Zengmu Tan or sandbank. This error had the effect of transforming a shoal, which lies under the water, into a land feature above the water.

The second error occurred in 1947 when the Republic of China drew up China’s claims to the South China Sea in a map containing eleven dash lines. Zengmu Tan was renamed Zengmu Ansha or reef. Despite the fact that James Shoal lies 22 meters below the sea, the People’s Republic of China advances the fictitious claim that it is a land feature marking the southernmost extent of China’s territory.

On March 26, 2013, a flotilla of four PLAN warships, including its largest and most modern amphibious assault ship, Jinggangshan, a destroyer and two guided missile frigates, conducted an oath taking ceremony at James Shoal. PLAN sailors and marines pledged to “defend the South China Sea, maintain national sovereignty and strive towards the dream of a strong China,” according to Chinese media reports. According to other accounts the Chinese warships fired their guns into the air.

Malaysia-based journalists reported that Malaysian Foreign Ministry officials were unavailable for comment. A government official later announced that there were no reports of any encounter with the PLAN flotilla by Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency or the Royal Malaysian Navy. It later reported that Malaysia had lodged a protest with Chinese authorities.

In April 2013, it was reported that a China maritime surveillance ship returned to James Shoal with the intention of dropping steel sovereignty markets into the shoal. Publicity surrounding this incident was suppressed until it leaked out months later.

Later in the year, on June 3, Prime Minister Najib in a speech in Kuala Lumpur called for claimants in the South China Sea to jointly develop resources to avoid conflict and prevent “extra-regional states” from becoming involved. This was widely viewed as a swipe at the United States.

Even more astonishing were the observations of Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein in an interview in late August. The Minister stated, “Just because you have enemies, doesn’t mean your enemies are my enemies.” He also observed that the Chinese “can patrol every day, but if their intention is not to go to war” it is of less concern. “I think we have enough level of trust,” the minister said, “that we will not be moved by day-to-day politics or emotions.”

Malaysia reacted to the return visit by a PLAN flotilla in January 2014 in a similar fashion. According to Chinese media, three PLAN warships, the Jinggangshan amphibious assault ship and two destroyers, patrolled the waters near James Shoal. Sailors and marines again swore to safeguard the sovereignty of Zengmu Ansha.

Malaysian foreign ministry officials were once again unavailable for comment. A day after the PLAN visit to James Shoal, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson asserted China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over James Shoal and denied that China had received an official protest from Malaysia.

On January 29, the chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy, Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar, responded to press queries about the presence of Chinese warships at Beting Serupai by denying the exercises took place. The navy chief instead referred to PLAN warships exercising 1,000 nautical miles away.

It was not until February 20 that the chief of the Malaysian armed forces, General Tan Sri Zulkifeli Mohd Zin, confirmed press reports. General Zulkifeli confirmed to a press conference at Defense Headquarters that Malaysia had monitored the Chinese flotilla and that it “strayed into Malaysian waters.” General Zulkifeli noted that the PLAN was undertaking innocent passage and that prior notification had been posted on an official Chinese navy website.

General Zulkifeli stated, “That’s a natural thing, As long as it was an innocent passage, that is okay with us.”

Malaysia’s reaction to the two visits to James Shoal by PLAN warships gave rise to speculation that Malaysia was breaking ranks with fellow ASEAN members and was pursuing a low-key approach on territorial disputes with China in order to accrue economic benefits. But a closer examination of Malaysian policy reveals a more complex response.

Malaysia’s policy, to borrow from Theodore Roosevelt, is one of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” For example, on August 30, 2013, immediately after the comments by Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein quoted above, an email was sent out to regional security analysts by a highly placed Malaysian government source. The email read:

I have it on good authority that the defense minister was not properly briefed on the issue and that his words certainly didn’t reflect Malaysian policy. While we recognize the freedom of navigation for all vessels, including military ones, on the high seas, we require that states ask for our permission to conduct military activities in our exclusive economic zone. And that requirement applies to all foreign naval vessels, including Chinese ones. The defense minister’s statement does not change that.

And, in an apparent reference to Prime Minister Najib’s speech in June 2013, the Malaysian government source stated, “Nor are we ready to consider joint development activities with the Chinese. That would require recognition of China’s claims in the South China Sea, including our EEZ. And that’s not our policy.”

Malaysia has taken three important steps to strengthen its figurative “big stick.” On October 10, 2013, after the PLAN visit to James Shoal, Malaysia’s Defense Minister announced that a new naval base would be built in Sarawak, one hundred kilometers from James Shoal. Second, he announced that Malaysia would start up a new Marine Corps to provide amphibious capabilities in the South China Sea. The new naval base and marine unit would be tasked with protecting Malaysia’s off-shore oil and gas reserves as well as defending against possible armed incursions from the southern Philippines.

Third, on February 11, 2014 Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar and his U.S. counterpart, Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, the new Chief of Naval Operations, agreed to step up U.S. naval visits to Malaysia. According to Admiral Aziz, “Since 2008 to the end of last year, 132 US naval ships have called at Malaysian ports such as Pulau Indah and Kota Kinabalu.”

Both navy chiefs discussed potential cooperation in submarine operations, maritime security issues, and a report of an alleged shooting incident by the Chinese navy while patrolling the South China Sea recently. Admiral Greenert visited the Malaysian navy’s submarine base in Kota Kinabalu.

Malaysia has also begun to “talk softly” with fellow members of ASEAN. Diplomatic sources report that recently Malaysia has begun to play a more proactive role in advance of China-ASEAN consultations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which are due to begin in Singapore in March. Malaysia is also hosting a visit by Philippine President Benigno Aquino. The diplomatic rumor mill reports that the United States is quietly encouraging Malaysia and Vietnam to lend support to the Philippines as the March deadline for its submission to the UN Arbitral Tribunal approaches.


Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohd. Najib Tun Razak would be visiting China in May to commemorate his father’s foot steps 40 years ago, where Malaysia established diplomatic relationship. That was a strategic move, in the times where the region was facing a serious ‘battleground’ between Super Powers and the communism threat was prevalent.

Tun Abdul Razak’s visit and friendly gesture with Chairman Mao Zedong had another purpose. The Malayan Communist Party was taking the post 13 May 1969 tragedy Second Emergency into another gear up where the strategy was to assassinate military, security and political leaders.

Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Razak called on Chairman Mao in a historic visit, where Malaysia’s sovereignity and neutrality is preserved. Beijing, May 1974ao Zedong had another purpose. The Malayan Communist Party was taking the post 13 May 1969 tragedy Second Emergency into another gear up where the strategy was to assassinate military, security and political leaders.

China was MCP biggest backer and being friends with the  Malaysian Government meant that the financial and intelligence relationship the “Butchers of Malaya” rebels enjoyed drew into an end.

His Majesty Seri Paduka Yang DiPertuan Agong is expected to make a State Visit to China in November, which is part of the fortification of the diplomatic, trade and cultural relationship formed and grew these past 40 years with China and the past 25 years of capitalistic side of world’s largest communist controlled state.

That is not withstanding the fact that President Barack H. Obama would be making an official visit to Malaysia next month, to replace the cancelled visit last year due to the partisan tussle for Capitol Hill which led to Federal Government budget failed to be approved by US Congress.

Prime Minister Najib and President Barack Obama

When President Obama’s visit last year was made firm, it is believed that China’s Foreign Ministry insisted that China’s President made an official visit to Malaysia at their specified date.

In many instances, diplomats around the region tell the tale about how Chinese Foreign Ministry officials warn ASEAN nations involved in the multiple claims over various over lapping areas in the South China Sea to not raise words like “Multilateral solution” or “Arbitration”.

China is only interested in resolving issues through ‘bi-latteral’ dialogue separate with ASEAN countries. What it  literally means to China is that they telling them off and these ASEAN countries are expected to play along, “In the name of regional co-operation and friendship”

The arrogance is overwhelming when the Philippines President Benigno Acquino III’s planned visit to China lats year was cancelled as the instruction of China’s Foreign Minister because the former was pushing for arbitrary as a solution for the Scarborough Shoal stand off.

ASEAN EEZ Vs China's claims over South China Sea

ASEAN EEZ Vs China’s claims based on the unsubstantiated and imaginary ‘Nine-Dash-Line’ across South China Sea

It is imperative that Malaysia maintain some level of’ insurance’ to ensure the safe passage of the South China Sea continues. It is the second most important merchant waterway and world trade is dependent on the safety of merchant shipping through the passage.

More than RM1 trillion of Malaysia’s trade is dependent on the free and safe South China Sea as a merchant maritime passage. Malaysia’s wealth the form of hydrocarbon deposits and mining activities are located within the EEZ guaranteed by United Nations Convention Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

That is not withstanding the livelihood of so many Malaysia fishing families are dependent from what South China Sea has to offer.

The constantly progressive aggressiveness of Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) Naval Forces (PLAN) in the region is worrying. The developments since the 2008, saw China moving from its Green-water navy capability towards Blue-water navy capability.

In 2008 the BBC reported that a senior Chinese defence official (Major General Qian Lihua) confirmed China was to operate a small fleet of aircraft carriers. However, it was said to be for the purpose of regional defence as opposed to “Global reach”.

The first island chain, which China looks at with great zest and appetite

A report in late 2012 by the United States has outlined China’s recent naval modernisation efforts and intentions of developing blue-water capabilities. The report suggested that while China is developing a blue-water navy, it will be more regional in nature rather than global. Chinese strategists call this “A regional [blue-water] defensive and offensive navy.”

PLA officials have outlined plans to operate in the First and Second island chain.

The might of PLAN is also very worrying to defense analyst in the region. With a personnel strength of 290,000 servicemen and women, including 12,000 marines and 35,000 naval air force personnel, it is the second largest navy in the world, behind only the United States Navy. PLAN assets include 1 aircraft carrier, 3 amphibious transport docks, 56 submarines (of which 14 are nuclear-powered), 22 destroyers, 41 frigates, 10 corvettes, 105 missile boats, 131 gunboats and 67 mine countermeasures vessels.

In comparison, the Royal Malaysian Navy is far too small. Assets of RMN include 2 Perdana Class Scorpene submarines, 2 Lekiu Class frigates, 2 Kasturi Class frigates, 4 Laksmana Class corvettes,  6 Kedah Class off-shore patrol vessels, 4 Perdana Class missile gunboats, 4 Handalan Class missile gunboats and 6 Jerung Class gunboats.

What is more critical for RMN is that out of the original 16 platforms which have missile launching capability, the current status now has been reduced to only four. The latest edition of the frigates is actually 15 years old. The Kasturi Class, for example, is in its 30th year of service. The NGPV program which the six Kedah Class OPV have been delivered has been shelved indefinitely.

In the pipeline is the 6 Gowind Class littoral combat warships, which the Malaysian Government has yet to ink the contract with Boustead Heavy Industry and its partner, DCNS of France. Another strategic weapon system is the ASW/Maritime Patrol Aircraft program, where it is a capability to extend the current submarine force and surface warfare capability, for the purpose of policing the vast body of water between Semenanjung Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah.

The RMAF, which serve as the quick response frontliner, also has not even been equipped with the much assets to ensure its full capability as a modern air force. RMAF is still waiting for the decision to firm the acquisition of much needed AEW/C capability, as well as the critical multirole combat aircraft (MRCA) replacement program for the aging MiG29Ns

Currently, RMAF capability stands at 18 Su30MKM Fulcrum MRCAs, 10 MiG29Ns interceptors, 8 F/A-18D Hornet all weather MRCAs, 13 BAe 100 Hawk light attack aircrafts and 13 F5E interceptor/reconnaissance.

Despite the pressing need to upgrade current military capability for Malaysia’s own sovereignty preservation, the over-politicking of military asset acquisitions since April 2007 has resulted to the Federal Government ultra careful bordering paranoia in making decisions to acquire much needed new ones.

Coupled with rising cost of crude oil production and world economic slowdown due to the 2008 sub-prime financial meltdown which resulted to higher cost of production of goods and lower power of purchase from trading partners especially the United States and EU, the growth and role of China in Malaysian external trade takes primary pole.

Therefore, Malaysia under Prime Minister Najib is bullish and wishful about its diplomatic and international trade relations with China.

That is not withstanding the constant request for new military asset acquisition and development programs put forth. However, Prime Minister Najib’s leadership focusing on the rationalisation of spending and subsidies, Malaysian Government has put all military asset acquisition programs on hold and at the back burner even though some have reached critical requirement status.

The visits and ‘exercise’ conducted by the Jinggangshan and Changbanshian task force groups of PLAN in the region and into Malaysia’s territorial waters as defined by UNCLOS in the past 12 months is China’s act of projection of force and projection of power. It is more prevailing since US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement of “Moving majority of US warships in Asia-Pacific region to South East Asia” at Shangri-La Dialogue almost two years ago.

Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein call on US Navy Asia-Pacific Command Adm Harry Harris Jr at Pearl Harbour in January

China is very selfish in its economic interest in the region especially in the South China Sea, particularly with specific issues like hydrocrabon exploration, fishery and maritime domination. Since 2008, it is clear that China is not shy to demonstrate their will to use deadly force, to zestful mark their territorial claims.

Thus, Malaysia had no choice but to foster closer military co-operation with the United States since China does not seem to be respecting international diplomacy. Despite Malaysia’s close relationship with China, there is no guarantee that China would behave accordingly instead of arm twisting or worse still, imposing itself against the will of others in the region.

Prime Minister Najib and President Xi Jinping on the latter's state visit to Malaysia at Perdana Putra, October 2013

Prime Minister Najib and President Xi Jinping on the latter’s state visit to Malaysia at Perdana Putra, October 2013

It is not right to associate oneself with a big bully who has been trying to dominate the world as the ‘Sheriff’ and imposing their Anglo-Saxon righteousness and value system. Then again, there is an even more nasty bully who is in the neighbourhood and has been ‘terrorising’ every kid, with demonstration of power and prevaling attitude towards use of deadly force to achieve his desired objective.

January 17, 2014

Readout of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s Meeting with Malaysian Minister of Defense Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein

Assistant Press Secretary Carl Woog provided the following readout:

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with Malaysian Minister of Defense Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein today at the Pentagon.

Secretary Hagel underscored the U.S. commitment to deepening ties to Malaysia.  The two leaders discussed a range of international security issues, including Afghanistan, North Korea, and the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in addressing regional security challenges.

Malaysia is an important partner in Southeast Asia that is making valuable contributions to international security both on its own and in partnership with ASEAN.  Secretary Hagel praised Malaysia’s leadership in Southeast Asia.

The secretary and the minister also talked about ways to enhance the defense relationship between the United States and Malaysia, including by enhancing bilateral exercise and training opportunities and exploring expanded defense trade cooperation.

The two leaders looked forward to meeting again at the upcoming U.S.-ASEAN informal meeting in Hawaii in April.


NST story:


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during official visit to Kuala Lumpur

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during official visit to Kuala Lumpur

19 January 2014| last updated at 06:34PM

Malaysia, US to intensify military exercises, training

By Rozanna Latiff | news@nst.com.my
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KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s military exercises and training with the United States will be strengthened in order to bolster defence cooperation between the two countries.

Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said such two-way cooperation was important to build confidence and to share new experiences and training techniques among military officers from both countries.

He said this during a meeting with US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon, Washington yesterday.
Both leaders also discussed various international defence issues, including developments in Afghanistan and North Korea, as well as Asean’s role in overcoming regional security challenges.
During the meeting, Hagel praised Malaysia’s commitments in Southeast Asia and called on Asean member countries to unite and cooperate with each other to ensure regional stability.
“Malaysia is an important US ally in Southeast Asia, which has contributed a lot to security and defence, whether on its own or by working with other Asean nations,” he said.
The meeting with Hagel was held as part of Hishammuddin’s inaugural visit to the United States after taking over the national defence portfolio.
The two are expected to meet again at the US-Asean informal meeting in Hawaii next April.


Malaysia is in dire need to find the right ‘balance’ to ensure its position as the world’s 17th most important trading nation and diplomatic and cordial relationship with the United States and China is maintained, without sacrificing the integrity of the freedom of wealth within the 200 nautical miles from the coast of EEZ and sovereignty.

*Updated 1000hrs

Published in: on March 3, 2014 at 02:30  Comments (29)