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Malaysia as ASEAN Chair  by Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0034/ 2015

1) What can we expect from Malaysia as ASEAN Chair for 2015, given it is a claimant party in the South China Sea and very close economically to China?

ANSWER: Malaysia is one of the original five founding members of ASEAN. As ASEAN Chair Malaysia will represent the consensus of members on South China Sea issues. Malaysia’s leaders, Prime Minister Najib Razak in particular, fully endorse peaceful diplomatic consultations with China to implement the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and to step up progress on getting a binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (COC). The hallmark of Prime Minister Najib’s approach to territorial disputes in the South China Sea has been to clamp down on any public comments by Malaysian officials and not to say anything in public. Najib himself takes charge of this issue in face-toface meetings with Chinese officials. He was publicly praised by Xi Jinping last year at the APEC Summit for his approach. In short, Malaysia will play a strong diplomatic role behind-the-scenes in encouraging China to be more forthcoming but in public Malaysia will be circumspect. Malaysia is unlikely to launch any new initiatives.

2) Do you think that China will try to influence Malaysia as Beijing did with Phnom Penh in 2012?

ANSWER: Malaysia is a relatively strong economy and China will not be able to leverage political influence in Kuala Lumpur in the manner in did in Cambodia. There are a number of incidents in the South China Sea between China and Malaysia in recent years. On two separate occasions China has sent naval vessels to James Shoal off the coast of eastern Malaysia to pledge to defend China’s sovereignty. JamesShoal is claimed by China as the most distant land feature claimed although it is twenty metres below water. More seriously, last year Chinese maritime enforcement officials began removing Malaysian territorial markers from Erika reef and Luconia shoals and replacing them with Chinese markers. Chinese fishermen continue to poach in Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone using cyanide to stun schools of fish. And Chinese maritime enforcement vessels continually challenge ships belonging to Petronas, the Malaysian state-owned oil company, as they service Malaysia’s offshoreoil platforms.

3) What should Vietnam do to benefit from the Malaysia’s chairmanship of ASEAN and to advance Hanoi’s interests on the South China Sea issues?

ANSWER: From Vietnam’s perspective, ASEAN unity and resolve to implement the DOC and obtain a legally binding COC are necessary components of its strategy to resist Chinese assertive sovereignty claims, but ASEAN unity and resolve are not sufficient to alter China’s behaviour. Vietnam should continue to lobby Malaysia not only to take Vietnamese interests into account but the interests of other littoral states, such as the Philippines, as with respect to Chinese land reclamation activities.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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