Hydrocarbon exploration by Malaysia’s Petronas recently triggered a three-way standoff in the South China Sea that lasted nearly six months. It only ended in mid-May upon the departure of the West Capella, the drillship at the heart of the matter. Tensions peaked in April with the deployment of a Chinese survey ship to Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone and a marked increase in U.S. naval operations in the area. Throughout the ordeal, Malaysia stuck with its traditional cautious approach, deploying its own navy and law enforcement and reiterating its support for freedom of navigation while simultaneously warning against the risk of miscalculation from increased numbers of warships and other vessels in disputed areas.
There has been debate within the Malaysian academic and think tank community over the country’s response and its approach to the South China Sea more broadly, with some advocating a more conciliatory stance toward China in the interest of closer bilateral relations and others advancing a nationalist “enough is enough” argument that calls for deeper cooperation with the United States in order to stand up against China’s aggression. The majority of voices, however, continue to support a cautious approach, wary of making an irreversible strategic misstep.
There are, indeed, significant reasons behind Malaysia’s pursuit of a quieter middle path that cannot be ignored. But a balanced approach need not be a passive one. Instead, Malaysia needs to redouble its efforts at engagement on all sides and work with China, its Southeast Asian neighbors, as well as the United States and its allies to safeguard its maritime interests.