A Malaysian naval officer looks out over the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook

MANILA – The past few weeks have exposed deep divisions among Southeast Asian nations on the controversial Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) submarine deal.

The majority of regional states, with the notable exception of the Philippines, a US treaty ally, either maintained a strategic silence or, in the case of Malaysia and Indonesia, openly criticized the agreement as a potentially destabilizing development amid escalating Sino-American rivalry.

Yet, recent days also saw key Southeast Asian nations displaying surprising unity in their resistance to China’s expanding footprint across adjacent waters. For the second time this year, Malaysia has summoned the Chinese envoy to protest against incursions into its claimed waters in the South China Sea.

The Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs submitted this week a four-paragraph note verbale to Chinese ambassador Ouyang Yujing in which the Southeast Asian country expressed its “protest against the presence and activities of Chinese vessels, including a survey vessel, in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone off the coasts of Sabah and Sarawak.”

“The presence and activities of these vessels are inconsistent with Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone Act 1984, as well as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos),” the statement said.

“Malaysia’s consistent position and actions are based on international law, in defense of our sovereignty and sovereign rights in our waters. Malaysia had also protested against the previous encroachments by other foreign vessels into our waters,” it added.

The strongly-worded protest came only a day after newly-installed Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob made it clear that Malaysia would make no “compromise on sovereignty” issues in the South China Sea. 

In June, Malaysia, then under a different prime minister, openly accused Chinese warplanes of violating “Malaysian air space and sovereignty” and vowed “having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise our national security.” 

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has made his country’s position clear to China. Photo: Facebook

‘A serious threat’

According to the Malaysian air force, several Chinese military aircraft, including an Ilyushin-76 and Xian Y-20, unilaterally made a “tactical formation” within Malaysian airspace, which constituted “a serious threat to national security and flight safety.” 

Neighboring Indonesia, as well as the Philippines, have also engaged in similarly tough maneuvers to forestall Chinese incursions into their exclusive economic zones, reflecting a hardening regional resistance to Beijing’s military moves in the contested waterway.

In fact, key Southeast Asian countries have also been deepening their defense and strategic cooperation with external powers, including major aerial and amphibious drills with the United States in recent months.

Historically, Malaysia has maintained relatively cordial ties with China, a top trading and investment partner in recent decades. For its part, Beijing has often adopted a softer approach to Putrajaya in the South China Sea, where multiple claimant states have been at loggerheads. 

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his allies, who are now back in power, also relied on China as a major strategic patron throughout the years.

This is why few observers were less surprised by Malaysia’s seemingly obsequious position amid the ruckus over AUKUS, when it emphasized the “need to get the views of the [Chinese] leadership, particularly China’s defense [officials], on what they think of AUKUS and what their action could be.” 

But over the past three years, Malaysia has gradually revisited its “quiet diplomacy” with China amid growing tensions in the South China Sea, as well as concerns over Beijing’s so-called “debt trap” diplomacy.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad openly criticized allegedly overpriced and corruption-infested Chinese infrastructure projects in the country, while adopting a tougher stance amid maritime disputes with Beijing. 

Under Mahathir, Malaysia openly threatened China with filing an arbitration case in the South China Sea, while openly criticizing China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claims as  “ridiculous.”

Beginning in December 2019, Malaysia also stepped up its unilateral energy exploration activities in overlapping claimed areas with China and Vietnam. 

Despite the toppling of the Mahathir administration the following year, Malaysia continued its energy exploration activities. Following a months-long tussle with Chinese vessels, which constantly harassed the Malaysian West Capella oil drillship, then foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein underscored: “Malaysia remains firm in its commitment to safeguard its interests and rights in the South China Sea.”

Soon, even the country’s largely ceremonial and supposedly apolitical king joined in, calling on the Malaysian government to “always [be] sensitive to the maritime domain and adopt a strategy that supports our geopolitical aspirations.”

This week, the Malaysian government reiterated that “in determining Malaysia’s position and course of action with regard to the South China Sea issue, which is complex and involves interstate relations, Malaysia’s national interests will remain of paramount importance.”

“Malaysia reiterates that all matters relating to the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully and constructively, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS”, the statement added. 

Alarmed by China’s intrusions, Malaysia has also been beefing up its defensive capabilities in recent months. In August, the Malaysian Navy conducted the week-long “Taming Sari” exercise, where it successfully test-fired three live anti-ship missiles in a clear demonstration of its growing defensive capability. 

US aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt and Malaysia’s air force have conducted exercises in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP / Anthony J Rivera / Navy Office of Information

In the same month, Malaysia joined the United States-led Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) exercise, which saw 21 countries, including major US allies such as Australia and Germany, engaging in large-scale drills aimed at enhancing “operational environment, build[ing] capacity for humanitarian support missions, and uphold[ing] international laws and norms.” 

A few months earlier, the Malaysian air force conducted massive joint drills with the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, which completed exercises in the South China Sea, underscoring a steady yet quiet build-up in US-Malaysian defense maritime security cooperation.  

Malaysia is not alone in its hardening stance amid maritime disputes with China. The neighboring Philippines has also adopted an increasingly hard line against China, especially as Beijing-friendly Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte enters his twilight months in office. 

Last week, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, who openly backed the AUKUS deal as a “counterbalance” against China, filed a new series of diplomatic protests against Beijing over “alarming” reports of new incursions by Chinese vessels within Philippine-claimed waters. 

“File now our protest on China’s incessant & unlawful restriction of Filipino fishermen from conducting legitimate fishing activities in [Scarborough Shoal],” Locsin said in his Twitter account last week, reiterating the Philippines’ opposition to China’s de facto occupation of the fisheries-rich land feature, which falls well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Earlier, the Philippine diplomatic chief warned that his country would file “daily diplomatic protests” if China continued to deploy paramilitary vessels to Manila-claimed land features in the Spratlys, which witnessed a months-long maritime standoff between the two countries earlier this year. 

Last month, the Philippines and US, marking the 70th anniversary of their Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), agreed to deepen their defense cooperation after the full restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) earlier this year. 

Both allies agreed to fully implement other key defense agreements such as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) as well as develop a new framework for maritime security cooperation in order to forestall Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. 

Although not a direct claimant state in the disputed waters, Indonesia has also stepped up its maritime patrols and naval presence off the coast of the Natuna Islands, which overlaps with the southernmost tip of China’s vaguely defined nine-dash line claims.

In addition to concerns over illegal fishing within its waters, Jakarta has been particularly perturbed by Chinese harassment of energy exploration activities in the resource-rich area.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo during his visit to a military base in the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea, on January 8, 2020. Photo: AFP / Presidential Palace

Indonesia steps up patrols

In 2017, Indonesia renamed its exclusive economic zone off the coast of the Natuna islands as the North Natuna Sea in a bid to reassert its claims in the area. Former maritime and fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti also adopted a “sink the boat” policy, which targeted illegal Chinese fishing vessels. 

Back in August, Indonesia also conducted its largest joint drills, Garuda Shield, with the US, which saw the participation of more than 4,500 troops and personnel. Both sides hailed a “new era” in their defense cooperation amid shared concerns about a resurgent China. 

Last month, the Indonesian navy deployed up to five vessels, assisted by an air patrol, to the area in order to ward off a growing Chinese paramilitary and coast guard presence in the area. 

“The navy’s position on the North Natuna Sea is very firm in protecting national interests within the Indonesian jurisdiction in accordance with national law and international law that have been ratified so that there is no tolerance for any violations in the North Natuna Sea,” said Indonesian Navy western fleet commander Arsyad Abdullah. 

No less than President Joko Widodo has chimed in, visiting the Natuna Islands last year amid a standoff between Indonesia and China in the area. In a clear show of force, Indonesia deployed fighter jets and has steadily expanded its naval footprint in the area.

“There is no bargaining when it comes to our sovereignty, our country’s territorial,” Widodo said during his visit to the disputed area last year.