[Update 14 July 2016: An international court has recently ruled that China has ‘no legal title’ to the Spratly Islands. While the Philippines are really happy about the judgement which hugely favoured them, China ain’t takin’ none of it. Literally. They’re rejecting the ruling and “will neither acknowledge or accept it”. Oh boy.]
A few weeks ago the ambassador of China to Malaysia, Dr Huang Huikang, wrote an article in The Star newspaper titled “The way of amicable consultations“. In it, the Chinese ambassador compares the relation between China and Malaysia, to the relations between China and the Philippines.
He states that while China’s relationship with Malaysia is at its peak, relations with the Philippines has soured. If you Googled “China-Malaysia relations” vs “China-Philippines relations“, you get quite contrasting pictures.
China seems to be comparing the two countries based on their reactions to China’s claim on a small bunch of islands in the middle of the South China Sea – known as the Spratly Islands. Dr Huang has praised the way Malaysia has handled the dispute while saying that Philippines can learn from us.
“While Malaysia has consistently been committed to maintaining friendly relationship, properly handling disputes, strengthening cooperation and enhancing comprehensive strategic partnership with China, the Philippine president Benigno Aquino III, on the contrary, misjudged the international situation, acted as a pawn of an outsider’s geopolitical strategy, and chose to confront China.” – Dr Huang Huikang, in The Star
Why is everyone arguing over this itsy-bitsy group of islands
The Spratly Islands is a really tiny cluster of islands in the South China Sea (cos it’s a sea, that’s er… south… of China) that multiple countries have claimed to belong to them, including China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan (total landmass: 2 km2,. smaller than the whole of University of Malaya at 3 km2), and the dispute has been going on for decades now. Each country has their own arguments and historical documents as to why they believe their area belongs to them.
As far as we can tell, Malaysia claims a small number of islands in that area, in particular one reef called Layang-Layang (Swallow Reef), where we’ve built an airstrip, a dive resort, and a military base, amongst other things.
While disputes over land are actually common between neighbouring countries, why da heck is everyone so concerned about this small little landmass in the middle of nowhere? Well, it’s because China is basically saying that they own the area all the way to the doorsteps of Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, and East Malaysia.
YES. China is claiming the South China Sea as theirs. (FYI, the Indian Ocean isn’t owned 100% by India but they play a role in safekeeping it. In fact, China kinda wants to cari pasal there too!)
There are many benefits to having control over the Spratly Islands and the waters that surround it:
- Whoever controls the area controls one of the largest shipping routes in the world.
- Home to many fishing grounds
- Potentially lots of natural resources
The last point itself is enough for anyone to wanna own them. But does that mean China is just greedy and wants everything for itself?
But the islands are becoming… bigger!?
In the past few years, the dispute between countries has become bigger because China started to do some major renovations in these areas like turning this reef (an area of land right below sea level) into a real island and building a military base there.
Yes, WITHOUT finalising who the area belongs to. Of course, this is just 760 km away from Phillipines and their US army base (as compared to the 3,125 km distance between China and Spratly), so obviously they’d be a little worried.
Why China so Kancheong? Well, the South China Sea is a very important area, and a military base would help them control it.
How China gets their oil. Original image from Wikipedia.
80% of China’s crude oil imports passes through the Selat Melaka, and eventually passes the Spratly Islands before it gets to China. Taking the Spratly Islands would “allow China to control the energy security of Asia.” In other words, they’re only interested in making sure there are no problems in the region to make sure that their supply of oil from Saudi Arabia is never cut off.
But regardless of their non-violent intent, would anyone feel safe if there were foreign weapons being built so close to home? The other countries involved, particularly Vietnam, the Philippines, and even Japan (we’ll talk about how they’re involved later), definitely didn’t take very well to that. The Philippines have already resorted to taking China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (a panel that resolves conflicts between countries).
Malaysia however, has been a lot more….accommodating.
Why Malaysia so BFF with China?
If you minus one F from BFF also can.
When news of China’s renovations started to make headlines worldwide, Malaysian Armed Forces chief, Zulkefli Mohd Zin, actually said some pretty strong stuff against them. Heck he even called it an “unwarranted provocation”. Defence Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, was a lot more cautious with his reply and said he will DISCUSS the matter with Australia.
“If the reports we’ve received from various sources regarding the buildup and placement of military assets in the Spratlys are true – this forces us in a pushback against China.” – Defence Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, as quoted by The Guardian
As for our PM, during the recent ASEAN (Southeast Asia countries) meeting called for the countries involved to “peacefully manage differences closer to home, including overlapping maritime claims, without increasing tensions”.
Well it could be that Malaysia has too much at stake to piss China off the way the Philippines did.
China is one of Malaysia’s largest trading partners. Between Jan-April this year, trade with China made up 11.2% of our exports (2nd behind Singapore), and 19.4% of our imports (top). This website also reports that China has been our top trading partner for the past 7 years!
In a previous article of ours, our friends at EquitiesTracker.com also enlightened us on the many sweet, sweet things that China has been doing for its girlfriend Malaysia:
- Buying close to RM17 billion worth of stuff from 1MDB
- Loaning us money to cover half the cost of the 2nd Penang Bridge
- Building a RM1.3 billion university in Sepang
- Allowing Malaysians to buy special Chinese shares
And with so many goodies, plus our trade, it’s no wonder that it’s a bit difficult for us to be angry at China.
Has Malaysia become China’s beach?
China’s involvement with all things Malaysian has raised questions on whether we’ve already sold our soul to them.
“Najib’s, and Malaysia’s, ability to manoeuvre, vis-à-vis China, is going to be limited after this (1MDB) deal. How far we (Malaysia) will be able to pursue an independent foreign policy after this, is going to be one of the key questions.” – Dennis Ignatius, a former Malaysian diplomat, as quoted by South China Morning Post
And this Spratly Islands issue looks like it has been affected by it.
BUT what if the story is wayyyy bigger than just one country buying out the other? In our previous article about China, we also mention that they’re not the only ones trying to take our relationship to the next level. Because America has been trying to do the same as well. Call it a love triangle of sorts.
It’s all talked about in our previous article, but basically America is taking a keen interest with us after nearly 50 years of not caring about us at all. They’ve been trying real hard to get us to sign the TPPA agreement, and we even discussed if Malaysia would be selling their soul to America instead.
But the point here is that the Spratly Islands issue isn’t about the Spratly Islands at all. It’s actually part of a bigger picture where two of the world’s biggest countries are currently trying their best to get ahead of each other in Southeast Asia.
“Southeast Asian countries therefore face a delicate balancing act. They will have to work closely with China because of its trading and rising investment power. On the other hand, a number have made it clear they see the US as a regional counterbalance to China, as evidenced by the welcome expressed to America’s so-called strategic pivot back towards the region.” – South China Morning Post
Which means Malaysia does have a role to play in all of this. It seems to be like a cliche hero movie where an average Joe finds out he’s part of a bigger war, and currently on his way of realising he’s the chosen one.
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