Lessons from Paracels XX: Najib’s Extended and Multi-tiered Diplomacy

China's imaginary and unsubstantiated Nine-Dash-Line

China’s imaginary and unsubstantiated Nine-Dash-Line

Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Mohd. Najib Tun Razak’s extended and multi-tiered and multi-pronged diplomacy is his administration’s strength to manage the multiple geo-political issues arisen from the multi nations’ claim over the Nine-Dash-Line in South China Sea.

Eurasia Review story:




As ASEAN Chairman this year Malaysia has to tackle the South China Seas disputes. Malaysia’s supposed “hedging” stance should be viewed more comprehensively.

By Oh Ei Sun*

2015 sees Malaysia stepping up to the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, just as the ten member states are poised to embrace the much anticipated ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Amidst the continued global economic slowdown, it is perhaps understandable that much attention has been focused on AEC as yet another impetus to spur regional economic growth, and by extension on Malaysia’s hopefully adroit skill in ASEAN’s driver’s seat.

Nevertheless, the disputes over the territorial and maritime sovereignty of a large part of the South China Sea, although apparently quietened down late last year, continued to be a latent challenge for all regional parties concerned. How skillfully Malaysia, both as a claimant party as well as ASEAN chair, handles the South China Sea disputes in relation to its three ASEAN co-claimants as well as China is crucial to regional peace and security.

Priority for economic cooperation

Recently, some researchers characterised Malaysia’s management of its South China Sea dispute with China as a “hedging” one, balancing its national interest of maintaining close economic relations with Beijing with the “regional” interest of ASEAN solidarity vis-a-vis China. While this “hedging” label on Malaysia may be partially accurate, it begs a more comprehensive and nuanced view of Malaysia’s international role as well as a more realistic regional outlook.

Firstly, for hundreds of years, Malaysia (and its preceding constituent states) has been a vibrant regional trading hub. This is especially so when the country undertook rapid industrialisation in the last half century, albeit with the vital assistance of foreign investments. The prevalent Malaysian national psyche, including and especially that of the ruling elite, thus exhibits a strong natural predilection toward economic concerns such as improved trade and investment, as opposed to overly ideological and nationalistic concerns.

Malaysia’s trade volume with China is indeed tremendous, surpassing US$100 billion annually over the last few years, making China its largest overall trading partner, and Malaysia China’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia. These fruitful and escalating bilateral economic ties thus understandably overshadow the intermittent South China Sea disputes, which do not show any immediate or even medium-term resolution.

Malaysia’s non-adoption of the more confrontational approaches of Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea disputes is therefore not surprising. Vietnam unfortunately experienced protracted and traumatic armed conflicts in its road towards nation-building, and its arguably more nationalistic attitude can thus be somewhat understood. The Philippines for obvious domestic reasons was not endowed with the massive economic development (and the resulting preference for trade) seen in the case of Malaysia.

Regional solidarity

But even if the term “hedging” were to describe Malaysia’s handling of the South China Sea disputes, it should at least be construed in a wider context. It is widely known that in addition to maintaining fertile trading relations with China, Malaysia, not unlike its many Southeast Asian neighbours, also welcomes the United States to continue playing a constructive role in regional security matters. Joint exercises (including maritime ones in or near the disputed waters), port calls and anti-terror efforts, to name but a few, continue to be cornerstones of US-Malaysia security cooperation.

Malaysia’s US-friendly stance, at least in security-related aspects, thus does not differ substantially from that exhibited by either Vietnam or the Philippines. It is perhaps also interesting to note that Malaysia and China will reportedly hold their first-ever joint military field exercise later this year.

Indeed, Malaysia certainly did not abandon regional solidarity with its neighbours when it comes to the South China Sea disputes. Malaysia remains committed and is proactively pushing for eventual region-wide solutions to the disputes. Malaysia is also equally comfortable with China’s preference for bilateral dealings over the South China Sea issue.

But whether bilaterally or multilaterally, Malaysia is flexible in terms of the ways and means – direct negotiation, mediation, joint development, arbitration, adjudication or otherwise – for resolving the disputes. Most of these have been successfully employed to conclusively settle its territorial disputes with neighbours such as Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore.

Malaysia, in this respect, looks favourably toward the region-wide (including both China and Southeast Asian claimant states) adoption of the Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea. Although the COC supposedly does not touch on sovereignty issues, it should provide a pragmatic framework for potentially managing, if not resolving, the South China Sea disputes. As ASEAN chairman Malaysia is likely to accord high priority to the adoption of the COC.

Confrontational benefits elusive

More fundamentally, it could also be argued that the more aggressive approaches preferred by the Philippines and Vietnam in dealing with China on the South China Sea disputes did not quite produce the results that they would have desired. For example, in the aftermath of the Philippines’ 2012 run-in with China over the Scarborough Shoal (which China calls Huangyan Island), Beijing assumes de facto control over access to the territory.

Similarly, despite Vietnam’s repeated skirmishes with China over the Paracel Islands/Xisha, these remain firmly under Chinese administration. As such, other Southeast Asian claimants, Malaysia included, could not elicit positive lessons from such confrontational styles.

Even the Philippines and Vietnam did not always confront China resolutely over the South China Sea disputes. In the midst of the Scarborough Shoal standoff, the Philippines inaugurated a China-funded dam project. Vietnam, which shares similar ideological outlook with China, often sees its South China Sea conflicts with China tone down after high-level party-to-party visits between the two countries.

For all these reasons, and with the benefit of a more comprehensive grasp of regional and international power-play realities, Malaysia may be said to more than just “hedge” its way out of the South China Sea disputes. It hews to a more comprehensive approach towards the eventual peaceful resolution of these disputes.

*Oh Ei Sun is a Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. A version of this commentary also appeared in Global Times.



Oh’s brief analysis basically sums up Prime Minister Najib’s diplomacy and friendship with world leaders which include President Xi Jinping of China, President Barack H. Obama of United States of America, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President David Cameron of United Kingdom.

This is not withstanding the extremely close relationship with Brunei Sultan Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, the Philippines President Benigno “Nonoy” Acquino III and Singapore Prime Minister Brig. Gen. (NS) Lee Hsien Loong.

The continuous and pro-active work spearheaded by Foreign Minister Dato’ Seri Anifah Aman fortified the foreign policy and extended multi-tiered and multi-pronged diplomacy further, which include the non-permanent membership of UN Security Council, Chairmanship of ASEAN and in the Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.

The ‘consultive approach’ really bore fruit even in the trickiest spot.

However, some statements made through media by Cabinet colleagues such as Defense Minister Dato’ Seri Hishamuddin Hussein is taking all these good work a few steps the other direction.

NST story:

Eastern Sabah hotspot for militant activities: Hishammuddin


LABUAN: Eastern Sabah continues to be a hotspot for militants to spread their skewed ideologies, in line with the Islamic State (IS) belief, said Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein.

Speaking to reporters at the Labuan Air Force Base site visit, Hishammuddin said based on intelligence, terror activities were very much active here with existence of Darul Islam elements.

He said it was important that countries in the regions, specifically Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines were on the same page in handling the terror threat, adding that the government will take preventative measures to avoid the situation from getting worse.

“What we are doing here (making Labuan Air Force Base as the front line and working with the Asean community in addressing militancy activities) now is to have preventative measures.

“Terror activities, especially IS, is still under control but if we don’t take immediate action, it can be very serious and worsened,” he said, adding that Syria and Iraq failed to address it earlier, having to bear the cost now.

On making Labuan as the front line and headquarters for the Air Force, Hishammuddin said the decision saw the state as a strategic defence location.

He said the stability and security of the region needs to be holistic, where they will use a more creative approach.


It is not sure the rational for the Minister in-charge of External Security to share all these information with the general public and how it would benefit them or the nation. Especially when these matters provide little comfort or worse still, reduced confidence for the general Malaysian public and a few notches lower for the international perception towards Malaysia.

However, the media crave politician would capitalise every moment to be relevant in the Malaysian media and hopefully, in the international media even at the expense of the political implication or perception towards the country.

Published in: on January 24, 2015 at 23:59  Comments (10)  

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I must say that I do find Hishamuddin’s stance and statements often disappointing, especially when he was Minister of Home Affairs. Poor man must appear to be 100% behind cousin Najib who had at that time wanted to get rid of the Sedition Act and so many anti-national blokes became emboldened to say and do as they pleased, under the then situation of an impending demise of the Act. Good of UMNO grassroots and leaders at various levels to have voiced their stand and the Act is now retained.

    But this time I see sense in Hishamuddin wanting Labuan as the front line of our air defence. Though I’m not sure if it’s wise to have the Air Force headquartered there. And if the “HQ” report on it is correct.

    Front line, Labuan must be. My layman’s thinking says that based on China’s menacing behaviour in the south China Sea in recent times, the potential threat must be deemed as from China. Labuan is very near the source of that threat, much nearer than anywhere in the Peninsula. The island has a lot of space. Being an island, its defence can be made specific such that hostile attacks on it need not simultaneously affect the land mass of Sarawak, Sabah and the Semenanjong.

    But, if the report is correct, why put the Air Force HQ there? Would it not mean that most of the Air Force assets – aircraft, flying and maintenance manpower – will be kept there? If so, what happens if a surprise attack of the size of the Japanese armada whacking Pearl Harbour in 1941 is done on Labuan? If most of the Air Force assets is wiped out at one go, what else is there to defend the country?

    The Air Force and other military strategists must have deliberated in depth on this. Wish they’d explain on the rationale of the Air Force HQ being in Labuan – the front line. The public needs to know so as to be able to sleep soundly on their strategy.

    • Maybe Hisham, the RMAF top brass and the strategists at MinDef are worried about whether the Air Force can gain “air superiority” over Malaysian air space in the event of hostilities breaking out.

      The MAF is charged with the defence of both peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. If hostilities erupt, the MAF has to fight on two fronts and to establish and maintain air superiority over West Malaysian and East Malaysian air space, as well as to establish a superior naval presence in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.

      The lengthy coastlines of peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia further complicate the issue of adequate naval coverage in the event of hostilities.

      The geopolitics of the region is also up in the air. Indonesia, being the biggest country in the region, will basically be a law unto itself. Thailand, where a military-backed government is likely to remain in power for the foreseeable future, may choose to tilt towards China. The Philippines, being a treaty ally of the US, will rely more and more on the American defence umbrellas of the US Seventh Fleet and the US Air Force detachments in Japan and South Korea. Singapore, which has armed itself to the teeth, will almost certainly side with the US.

      That doesn’t give Malaysia much a choice, especially if the US votes in a Republican President in 2017 who may adopt a more “muscular” position vis-a-vis China. The more so when the Republicans control both houses of Congress.

      Basically, that doesn’t leave Malaysia with much “wiggle room” in crafting its defence and foreign policies.

      And if ever the US (and it’s allies) choose to distinguish between the practitioners of “liberal” Islam and “militant” Islam, then all bets are off the table.

  2. So we befriend everybody, eh? I dunno the wisdom of that. Or whether countries can really be neutral under the present world conditions. So chaotic, it seems to me.

    Switzerland has been neutral for a long time but they built a country on that foundation since more than half a century ago. They did not have much minerals etc but have mountains, snow and lakes, harnessed into producing electricity for export as well. Their watches the best in the world, their banking system became a haven for those who want no-names but “only numbered accounts” to hide their wealth or ill gotten gains. Not sure how much money laundering going on there but the Swiss have been enjoying comforts provided by such an economy.

    Malaysia? Angkat bola China, US, Russia and every one else? Yeah, the polite word is diplomacy but Najib even threw away ISA and almost did so to the Sedition Act to please the Yanks who still have Guantanamo Bay, didn’t he? And now No Visas to Chinese tourists despite Chinese vessels did some cranking near the Malaysia-claimed islands in the south China Seas recently.

    Must confess am no expert in all these high falutin’ international politics mumbo jumbo, but those in the know are welcome to explain how, under our existing policies vis a vis US and China, Malaysia will fare best if, say, China clashes with Japan (re-arming heavily now) in the East China Sea.

    And how Russia will play its part, Putin having brought a warship to Australia when he went to attend a meeting there recently. And Britain, France and Gemany – are they much in our foreign policy calculations, I wonder.

    • Diorang kata tak kenakan visa kpd rakyat China akan bikin negara kita untikng banyak dari pelancung melancung di sini (jangan kira yang pelacur melacur di sini di masa dan salepas tuang tarikh keluar).

      Tapi, dah susah payah Malaysia buat keputusan tak kenakan visa, kenapa China kata nak juga rakyat dia mohon visa? Tak faham saya.

      Kot nak rekodkan dalam paspot depa hal depa ada keluar, bagi macam macam tujuan gomen depa, agak nya. Dah macam biasa lah, Melayu nih – buat baik tak berpada pada, nak ngampu pun, tak bermakna kpd China.

      Nampak nya gomen kita lebih percaya kpd rakyat China dari gomen depa sendiri.

  3. In making Labuan as AF base and HQ, is Hishamuddin talking about defence from IS or the potential threat from China?

    Or using IS as a cloak to cover beefing up defence against China?

  4. Hisham prostituting himself, his ministerial, party and BN post or even heritage for an attention by media regardless how irrelevant is simply QED.

    He is not a media craved man. He is an incurrable media addict!

    It is ashamed that his cousin-brother allow this counter productive stunts.

  5. Every Malaysian that love our beloved country wanted to see our military have some punch to protect our sovereignty. However, if you compare our asset with our neighbouring countries, you could see the gap is widening. How we could addressing our territory sovereignty and also protect sovereignty if our asset just numbers. If you detail out our military assets you will says oh my god we only have this? Suck!

    Perhaps our government should address our Navy and Air force are lacking number of assets – just imagine we have 18 Su30MkM + 8 F/A18 D + 24 Hawks = 50 fighter planes and 2 frigates + 6 corvette’s + 6 toothless KD Kedah class + 2 Sub’s to cover strait of Malacca, South China Sea and Sulu Sea. Kindly take note, we already have small assets and some assets need to undergo maintenances, that mean we have small number of assets are seaworthy and airworthy at one time.

  6. It sounds like Labuan will be turned into an unsinkable aircraft carrier, but then again frontlines of air power need not necessarily be on a fixed location or a base if Msia can think of acquiring battleships able to deploy airpower even in the middle of a vast ocean. In the battle of Midway, fought almost a century ago, airpower capability was launched from battleships that marked the naval and air power ascendancy of the US in Asia Pacific. In any case Msia must know what are the issues that it wants to address and address it using matching policies. Whether it wants to emphasise on terrorism, or other non traditional threats or on security and defence issues as a whole, it must have its own core plans independent of other forms of defence cooperation say with the US. We must not over rely on how the US sees threats because their threats may not be ours. Stay independent. As for hedging policy played by Msia vis a vis China, it is not something new. The US plays a hedging policy with.China too due to trade and economic interests despite their differences over Taiwan and the South China Sea. Malaysia has very little choice but to hedge with China on many fronts. But hedging has to be backed up with a more independent approach or risked being another satellite state orbiting in the dual hegemonic sphere of the US abd China.

    • Correction : US and China.

  7. Berbaik-baik dengan orang itu adalah sesuatu yang positif.

    Tetapi di mana hadnya? Adakah kita hendak ‘berbaik-baik’ sehingga tanah air kita tergadai? Nak biarkan sahaja orang berterusan perlekehkan kita, ugut kita, rampas hak kita kemudian ketawakan kita? Kita bukannya hendak ajak berperang, tetapi takkanlah hendak menyuarakan bangkangan kita terhadap tindak-tanduk yang salah pun tidak boleh?

    Adakah kita pun sudah “bertuhankan” ekonomi sehingga kita sanggup buat apa sahaja, waimah menggadai maruah dan harga diri sebagai sebuah negara berdaulat?

    Saya rasa itu bukan berbaik-baik, tetapi dayus namanya. Berpadananlah dengan karektor rejim sepupu-sepapat yang ada ni.

    p/s Terkenang zaman Tun M. Satu ketika kita tidak bersetuju dengan AS, beliau ada sebut lebih kurang, “Good friends should be allowed to disagree from time-time”

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