Malaysia's new prime minister shows signs of a bolder approach to his country's disputed claim in the South China Sea, where Beijing now exerts the most control.
Mahathir Mohamad, who took office last month after a surprise parliamentary election victory, wants Malaysia to hold onto the five islets it now controls, he told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post in an interview reported last week. He hopes maritime claimants take warships out of the sea to reduce tension, he added.
The prime minister is expected to follow popular will by reviewing projects funded by Chinese companies, said Ibrahim Suffian, program director with the Kuala Lumpur-based polling group Merdeka Center.
A reduction of Chinese economic influence would empower 92-year-old Mahathir to assert Malaysia’s claims over parts of the South China Sea with less risk of a Beijing backlash, scholars believe.
Mahathir’s predecessor seldom criticized China, even as it sailed coast guard ships near Malaysian claims, as investment ties flourished.
“With Mahathir coming on board and having more assertive views on what Malaysia’s regional policy ought to be, I think people welcome that,” Suffian said. “People do want to see a stronger approach to (the) South China Sea that protects the stability and the economic opportunities that currently exist.”
Mahathir, who previously led Malaysia for 22 years, wants to balance China’s investment, especially in infrastructure projects, with income from other countries and ensure the government avoids getting too close with Beijing, analysts say.
Under just-departed Prime Minister Najib Razak, China became the top source of foreign investment for Malaysia. As a result many citizens felt Najib’s government negotiated too softly with China, Suffian said. Media reports said in 2016 China was helping Najib personally.
Some in the country of 31 million people fear Chinese investment would take away local jobs, and opposition politicians used the relationship with China as an election issue this year.
Mahathir said during his campaign that Chinese investors should do more to hire Malaysians, establish facilities in the country and introduce technology.
China looks to Malaysia particularly as a locale for its $1 trillion Belt-and-Road initiative. Funding for the initiative builds infrastructure around Eurasia to form stronger trade links.
“There’s this mood of reaction against China in terms of the Belt and Road Initiative, so I think this re-calibration of Malaysian foreign policy on the South China Sea dispute is just part and parcel of it,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Malaysia has landed about $34 billion in loans for projects under the Belt and Road initiative. In 2017 China contributed 7 percent of the total $13.6 billion that Malaysia got from other countries.
South China Sea role
China and Malaysia contest parts of the South China Sea north of Borneo. China has militarized at least three features in the Spratly Island chain. Malaysia is particularly active in drilling near those islands for undersea oil and natural gas.
Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim all or parts of the resource-rich 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. Brunei and the Philippines, like Malaysia's previous administration, often mute criticism of China as they accept its investment or aid.
Mahathir’s comment about the five islets may reflect a notion to settle or administer them, said Oh Ei Sun, a Malaysian national and international studies instructor at Singapore Nanyang University. He might have meant the comment about fewer warships as a call to China and the United States to pull back, Oh said.
Washington does not claim the South China Sea but periodically sends vessels through to counter Chinese influence.
China will probably “adopt a pragmatic approach” to Malaysia’s new stance rather than resist it, Suffian said. Both countries want their joint investments to work out, he said.
Investments are due to include a railway line and a digital free trade zone.
If China became more aggressive at sea, Mahathir would probably publicize the act rather than letting it go, Oh said.
“If something like that happened, I think Malaysia perhaps would be more vocal,” he said. “When I say vocal, what I mean is for example more transparent. If China were to intrude into our waters, I think we would announce that as such.”
But the new PM’s stance as explained to date hardly amounts to a challenge, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“Mahathir should have called for demilitarization of occupied features, a halt to the permanent stationing of warships near claimed features, and a moratorium on the conduct of provocative naval exercises in the South China Sea,” he said.