FOR what is hyped to be a celebratory year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Malaysia and China, the mood is more cautious in the wake of yet another highly visible show of force by China in James Shoal.
Just as the Chinese community across the world was set to welcome the Year of the Horse, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA Navy) sent a three-ship flotilla to patrol the waters around James Shoal in the South China Sea.
The official news agency, Xinhua, reported that "soldiers and officials aboard swore an oath of determination to safeguard the country's sovereignty and maritime interests".
This was not the first, nor would it be the last of such visits. A similar incident took place in March last year.
Malaysia should well expect these visits to be a recurrent Chinese feature and stratagem to reinforce their claim over the Malaysian shoal.
The latest intrusion into James Shoal could be interpreted in two ways.
Firstly, it could be a low-key way for China to reaffirm its interests in the area, and keep alive its claims of sovereignty. If these visits are confined to political speech acts of declarations, there is no immediate threat to Malaysian interests and regional stability. However, if these visits are a prelude to the old Chinese game of "creeping assertiveness" by testing Malaysia's resolve, then the effect may be more destabilising and worrisome.
Even in the best case scenario where the repeated visits to the vicinity of James Shoal are transient and absent of any plans of escalation, Malaysia needs to provide a credible response.
James Shoal has clearly demonstrated the limits of Malaysian goodwill and "understanding" of what is essentially provocative Chinese moves toward Malaysian interests. We have to seriously ask ourselves, what does China hope to gain from these visits?
Malaysia had avoided megaphone diplomacy to register our concerns. Instead, we continue to put trust on our "special relationship" to avoid and minimise damage to one of our most important bilateral relationships.
Unfortunately, Beijing plays by different rules and proudly displays these acts openly and widely through their media agencies. This puts Kuala Lumpur in a delicate position.
By holding firm to the preferred modality of quiet diplomacy, Kuala Lumpur runs the risk of being criticised of appeasing China.
Indeed, the oft-asked question is, why is Kuala Lumpur deferential to Beijing? These views are a poor representation of Malaysian diplomacy. Malaysia is vigorous in protecting its interests in the South China Sea, but does so in a productive and non-confrontational manner.
China needs to show Malaysia the same courtesy and respect that we have shown to them. Playing out delicate political-strategic issues in the media would only serve to inflame nationalistic angst and harden positions in both countries, and potentially setting the stage for a confrontation that neither Malaysia nor China wants.
Looking ahead, Malaysia has to face up to some hard questions:
FIRST, it should re-evaluate if the existing approach and its China policy is effective. If James Shoal is used as a barometer of China's "friendliness" toward Malaysia, the future of Sino-Malaysian relations is not looking too bright;
SECOND, Malaysia should give more emphasis to political-strategic and security issues vis-à-vis China. As important as our trade and investment ties are with China, economics should not overwhelm strategic considerations. We need a balanced approach in our China policy;
THIRD, Malaysia should be more expressive and sharing with its views. As a democracy, the government has an obligation to inform and engage its citizens in its policy-making. More importantly, Malaysia needs to register its position openly but in a constructive manner. If Malaysia is hesitant to speak out for itself, how effective could Malaysia be when it assumes the chairmanship of Asean, and possibly serving as the Asia's representative in the UN Security Council?;
FOURTH, Malaysia needs a Plan B. Our policy is premised on a benign and cooperative China. What if this worldview turns out differently? What if James Shoal is the harbinger of a nationalistic and expansionist great power in the making? Although we would want to believe (and hope) that the latter worldview will not become a reality, Malaysia needs to expand its strategic options. It would be irresponsible to base our China policy on the latter's benevolence. There is no guarantee that this would be the case in the long term. In fact, James Shoal may just be the catalyst to nudge us toward contemplating the unthinkable; and,
FIFTH, we should not allow ourselves to be caught up in the euphoria and celebrations of the commemorative year, and avoid taking on hard and delicate issues. James Shoal (and the South China Sea dispute) is a tumour that if left untreated, could serve to damage the erstwhile good relations between Malaysia and China. Fundamentally, we should engage China to define the meaning of "friendship." How would friends deal with problems and disputes? Certainly not by sending men-of-war to test the other's resolve.
Friendships should not be taken for granted. Kuala Lumpur and Beijing need to work hard to maintain and to take the relationship to the next level. As we move toward paving new roads to deepening this friendship, we must also prioritise on repairing old ones. At the same time, we must be careful not to put additional pressure on old roads to avoid reaching the critical point of collapse.
James Shoal is a test for China, as much as it is for Malaysia. If China is changing course, so too must Malaysia in crafting an appropriate response.
Dr. Tang Siew Mun NST Opinion Columnist18/02/2014