When a Chinese survey ship deployed close to a Malaysian-contracted oil exploration vessel in Malaysian waters in mid-April, tensions in the South China Sea went up a notch. United States and Australia sent warships to the area to send a message to China - that Southeast Asian nations should be free to exploit resources off their own coasts.
Yet Malaysia itself kept its counsel. The government scarcely issued a word of protest over China's actions. And then, a month after the Chinese ship had arrived, the Malaysian-contracted drillship West Capella returned to port, and China's Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 went on its way.
Experts say Malaysia's handling of the standoff underscored its preference for low-key handling of such disputes and to avoid damage to its relationship with China - even as it challenges Beijing's sweeping claims in the South China Sea at the United Nations.
But questions remain about how durable Malaysia's quiet diplomacy will be in the face of China, a country intent on pressuring Southeast Asian nations that want to tap resources in areas that lie off their coasts. Areas that China, in defiance of international law, claims for itself.
"Malaysia's approach is to keep its head down in the hope that China will ignore Malaysia's operations in the South China Sea," said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "No, China is on a roll in the [South China Sea] and I don't expect that it will leave Malaysia's oil and gas operations alone."
Satellite image of the Malaysian-contracted drillship West Capella in the South China Sea, accompanied by the Executive Stride, a resupply vessel, April 22, 2020. Credit: Planet Labs Inc. Chinese Survey Ship Sets Sail
China has deployed the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 in contentious circumstances before. Last year, it was at the center of a months-long standoff with Vietnam at the disputed Vanguard Bank.
This time, it sailed past Vietnam and entered Malaysian waters on April 15 along with an escort of China Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia ships. It then commenced a survey right by the West Capella that had been exploring for oil and gas since December. Vessel tracking software revealed the path of the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, moving back and forth on horizontal and vertical paths indicative of a survey. Meanwhile, the CCG and Chinese maritime militia vessels sailed right next to the West Capella and its resupply ships.
Prashanth Parameswaran, a fellow at the Wilson Center's Asia program, said the Hai Yang was probably deployed in response to Malaysia's increasing assertion of its rights to resources on its continental shelf. Malaysia had submitted a claim for an extended continental shelf to the United Nations in December.
That submission prompted China to issue a protest, stating it still held "historic rights" to the entirety of the South China Sea - including areas within the continental shelf limits of Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This prompted protests from all those countries. On Tuesday, Indonesia followed suit. Notably it cited a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in response to a case brought by the Philippines that undermined the legal basis of China's claims in the South China Sea.
Malaysia monitored China's survey activity with at least one nearby warship and its coastguard throughout the month, vessel tracking software showed. However, Malaysia made few official statements, and was reluctant to acknowledge the campaign as it unfolded. Officials initially stated the survey "did not break any laws."
Hiebert said this was indicative of Malaysia's tendency to solve disputes quietly. "Not saying much about China's bullying of Malaysian naval or oil exploration vessels seems to be Malaysia's standard operating procedure," he said. "Privately, Malaysian officials often say 'What do you expect us to do? Go to war with China with our small navy? We don't want to disrupt our critical economic ties."
But Malaysia's low-key response drew some negative views at home, and according to Parameswaran "provided room for speculation and criticism and made it seem like it was on the backfoot."
US Sends Ships, Malaysia Opts for Quiet Diplomacy
China's intimidation campaign attracted international attention. The U.S. Navy sent ships to the area on four separate occasions - the first on April 18, as the U.S. and Australia launched a joint naval exercise near the site of China's survey. The U.S. 7th Fleet also sent littoral combat ships three times, stating that, "The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries."
Yet it wasn't clear that Malaysia welcomed the U.S. presence to the area or invited it. Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein released a statement on April 23 that cautioned both sides and urged restraint: "While international law guarantees the freedom of navigation, the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region." The statement also said that Malaysia was in quiet contact with both sides.
Elina Noor, an Associate Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, said this was consistent with Malaysia's stance on disputes in the South China Sea.
"The reality is that Malaysia's preference has always been to treat the South China Sea dispute out of the public glare and without political posturing," Noor said.
Luconia Shoals, where the China Coast Guard has kept up a continuous presence around these disputed features within Malaysian waters for years, May 26, 2020. Credit: Planet Labs Inc. Tensions Subside, But For How Long?
The West Capella went back to port in the Bay of Brunei on May 12, eight days before its contract was set to expire, and on the same day as the last U.S. naval patrol of the area.
Three days later - the same day as a call between the defense ministers of Malaysia and China -- the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 departed as well, leaving the impression that Malaysia blinked first.
While the area in question remains quiet, China retains a presence elsewhere within Malaysia's exclusive economic zone. Vessel tracking software on Friday showed a CCG ship numbered 5204 inside the Luconia Shoals in the southernmost part of the Spratly Island chain.
"I don't think Malaysia's handling of the West Capella incident changed China's thinking about operating off Malaysia's coast," Hiebert said. "Chinese ships have been lurking off Malaysia's James Shoal and Luconia Shoals for several years."
Noor said Malaysia's stated preference is to continue working through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on negotiations with China for a Code of Conduct (CoC) to regulate behavior in the South China Sea. Those negotiations began in earnest in 2017, and meant to be complete by 2021.
"However, there is little expectation that the CoC will have any teeth or that it will be abided by" even if it was legally binding, Noor said.
Parameswaran said there would likely be more "continuity than change" in Malaysia's approach to the South China Sea but without a firmer line toward China, "the risk is that the next crisis may be just around the corner."
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