In April, on the way to Kuching from Brunei, I overnighted in the small city of Miri on the Malaysian island of Borneo, in northern Sarawak. Miri, I came to learn, owes its existence to petroleum, as Malaysia’s first oil well was drilled there in 1910. Petroleum continues to drive the city’s fortunes, and both Shell and Petronas actively employ expatriates from many countries.
For a city with around 300,000 residents, Miri boasts a quite diverse population outside of expatriates, including Dayak (mainly Iban) comprising 40% of the population, Chinese at 30%, and Malay at 18%, with Kedayan, Bidayuh, Melanau, Kelabit, Lun Bawang and many other ethnic groups comprising the rest. Despite a significant Chinese population, sleepy Miri felt a long way from China.
So it came as a surprise to many when Malaysian authorities announced this past week that a Chinese coast guard vessel was spotted in March by a Malaysian patrol boat around the South Luconia Shoals and heading toward them at high speed. “To us, it looked like an attempt to charge at our boat, possibly to intimidate,” said a Malaysian officer, who recently showed Reuters a video of the previously unreported incident.
Despite previous aggressive actions by Chinese naval vessels, Malaysia has traditionally stuck to its “special relationship” with China, not wishing to disturb its significant trade and investment relationships with the economic giant. China is Malaysia’s first destination for its exports, and with ethnic Chinese comprising 25% of the population, Malaysia stands out as the largest importer of Chinese goods and services in the 10-member ASEAN group. Despite their economic relations, political ties are tense—ahead of a pro-Malay rally last September in Kuala Lumpur, the Chinese ambassador warned Malaysian authorities that Beijing will not hesitate to defend the rights of its nationals in Malaysia.
James Shoal (Zengmu Reef) is administered by Malaysia but also claimed by China and Taiwan. In 2010, a Chinese marine surveillance ship placed a sovereignty stele in the maritime area of the shoal marking it as Chinese territory. Malaysia allowed two Chinese naval exercise to take place at James Shoal in 2013 and 2014—just 50 nautical miles off the coast of Sarawak, with the 2014 visit consisting of an amphibious landing craft and two destroyers, during which soldiers and officers aboard swore to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and maritime interests. The 2013 incursion into James Shoal consisted of four Chinese ships firing their guns in the air.
In 2015, complaints by Malaysian fishermen in Miri of bullying by Chinese coast guard vessels went largely ignored, possibly because these vessels, deployed ostensibly to help with search and rescue missions, are fitted with some heavy-duty military equipment. China boasts its CCG3210, a 2,580-ton coast guard patrol ship armed with machine guns and light cannons, which may be capable of jamming communications.
Beijing is no doubt aware some of its aggressive actions will lead to increased militarization by its neighbors—Vietnam just got the go-ahead from the Obama administration allowing Hanoi to purchase lethal arms from the U.S., sales of which had previously been restricted. Vietnam may also purchase the Indian/Russian jointly developed BrahMos supersonic cruise missile—the fastest anti-ship cruise missile, sea-skimming to avoid detection and capable of traveling at speeds of up to Mach 3.0. Indeed, aggressive actions by Beijing in the disputed South China Sea are largely responsible for the 23% increase in defense spending in the Asia-Pacific region projected by the end of the decade by IHS Jane’s.
The Malaysian government is also starting to consider defensive measures—a senior minister recently argued for a stronger position against Chinese intrusions in Malaysian waters. Back in March, after hundreds of Chinese fishing boats were discovered fishing near the South Luconia Shoal, Malaysia deployed its navy and summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain the incident. China’s foreign ministry dismissed the incident, claiming its fishermen were operating in “relevant waters.”
Malaysia’s concerns over Chinese encroachment have led to plans for a naval forward operating base, to house helicopters, drones and a special task force, near Bintulu, south of Miri. Malaysian authorities have claimed the naval base will be used to ward off any attacks on oil and gas facilities by Islamic State sympathizers (based hundreds of kilometers away in the southern Philippines), though most analysts suggest it is an effort to control Chinese incursions.
Beijing should not be surprised if further intrusions in waters claimed and administered by Malaysia lead to further frustration and subsequent defensive actions among the leadership of Malaysia. As one unnamed senior federal minister recently told Reuters, “When the Chinese entered Indonesia’s waters, they were immediately chased out. When the Chinese vessels entered our waters, nothing was done.”