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The Spratlys are ongoing territorial dispute between neighbouring countries. China claims most of the South China Sea, and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.

Malaysia-China relations are now dedicated to improving trade and investment interdependencies. This is unavoidable.

But will this affect the KL-Beijing positive stands on the overlapping sovereignty claims in the Spratlys?

This puzzle arises because Malaysia’s current foreign policy behaviour towards China is perceived by some quarters — domestically and internationally — as being “confrontational”. Hence, this may alter China’s attitude towards Malaysia on the Spratlys issues.

The Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad administration (1981-2003) went against all odds to enter the Spratlys by claiming Malaysia’s sovereignty on Swallow Reef in 1983, Ardasier Reef and Mariveles Reef in 1986, and Investigator Shoal and Erica Reef in 1999.

Dr Mahathir had embarked on this move not because “Malaysia was a warlike nation” (Mahathir 2011).

But because it “must claim” what rightfully belonged to her in the South China Sea.

Peter Kreuzer of the Peace Research Institute, Frankfurt (2015), said these claims were “aimed at thwarting Vietnamese expansionist designs” in the Cold War era; and as “a reaction to the earlier Vietnamese occupation of Malaysian-claimed Amboyna Cay”.

Such an observation might be true because Vietnam had occupied Amboyna Cay, in Malaysia’s continental shelf limit, since 1979 “until today”.

But Vietnam had also encroached on this island undeterred because the Hussein Onn administration abandoned Malaysia’s claim on Amboyna Cay “for fear of war with Vietnam” (Mahathir 2011).

The Mahathir administration claimed Malaysia’s sovereignty in the Spratlys beginning 1983, primarily because those reefs and islands in the archipelago were within Malaysia’s continental shelf limits (Dzureks 1999; Roach 2014).

Secondly, Malaysia’s claims were “in accordance with the 1982 UNCLOS” (Collins 2000). Lastly, Malaysia confined its claims only “to specific parts of the Spratly archipelago” (Emmers 2010).

These factors motivated the Mahathir administration to convert Swallow Reef into the first artificial island in the South China Sea (Roach 2014); renamed it Swallow Island; safeguarded it through defensive militarisation (Ruhanie 2018); and ultimately designated it as Malaysia’s permanent military outpost in the region.

Since then, Malaysia acted as the most diplomatic claimant states in the Spratlys. It employed multi-dimensional strategies to guarantee its sovereignty in the region, particularly through hedging on China, and by establishing a “low-key” defence cooperation with the United States.

According to Kuik (2012), the hedging “is driven by both a pragmatic desire to maximise benefits from a closer relationship with the neighbouring giant and a contingent calculation to guard against any long-term strategic risks in the uncertain regional environment”.

However, Malaysia balanced these strategies by enhancing closer relations with Asean member countries, including Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam, as claimants to the Spratlys.

These approaches were adopted because Malaysia had chosen militarisation as its approach to protect its sovereignty in the Spratlys, in the Cold War era (Ruhanie 2018).

Several more referent objects were included in the post-Cold War era to reflect Malaysia’s geostrategic importance in the Spratlys and to protect Malaysia’s energy security.

This was done, firstly because Malaysia’s naval outpost in the South China Sea, in the post-Cold War era, became strategic with the redeployment of the US naval power to the Asia-Pacific beginning 2002.

Secondly, the additional referent objects were included because the strategic factors influencing the overlapping claims in the post-Cold War era were “economic and security” (Rizal 2016).

Lastly, because Malaysia had the biggest amount of estimated oil reserves of five billion barrels, and gas reserves of 80 trillion cubic feet, in the South China Sea (USEIA 2013).

Dr Mahathir administration’s foreign policy focus, conduct and behaviour concerning the Spratly Archipelago in the post-Cold War era were formulated based on these realities.

But compared to the other claimant states, Malaysia was regarded by several analysts as the closest to China on the Spratlys issues.

For example, in 1993 Dr Mahathir was quoted as saying that “Malaysia has no problem with China over the Spratly Islands despite Beijing's construction of military installations in the disputed archipelago”. (www.upi.com, Aug 21, 1993).

It was because “China is willing to sit down with us and discuss this matter”.

While on an official visit to China in 1994, UPI reported that “China has moved to calm the troubled Spratly Island waters by softening its claims of irrefutable sovereignty over the islands and calling for joint exploration of their oil-rich sea bed” (www.upi.com, May 13 1994).

The report added that Premier Li Peng also told Dr Mahathir that China “will discuss the (Spratlys) by putting aside disputes and seeking joint exploration as proposed by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping”.

Dr Mahathir responded positively to this remark by saying that Malaysia opposed further internationalisation of the Spratly dispute and “very much appreciates China’s stand of peaceful settlement of the Spratly issue”.

The above are accounts of Malaysia-China foreign policy focus, conduct and behaviour concerning the Spratlys in the then Mahathir administration.

Now, Dr Mahathir is Malaysia’s seventh prime minister under the Pakatan Harapan-led government. China seems to be more assertive in its moves concerning the Spratlys.

The US under President Donald Trump may not give way to China’s power politics in the region.

As such, what would be Malaysia’s stand on the Spratlys?

Will the above Malaysia-China relations concerning the Spratlys established by Dr Mahathir’s previous administration, be continued, changed or further enhanced?

The writer was a former member of parliament for Parit Sulong, Johor (1990-2004)

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