March 04, 2015

Playing It Safe: Malaysia's Approach to the South China Sea and Implications for the United States

In this sixth paper in the Maritime Strategy Series, Prashanth Parameswaran, Associate Editor at The Diplomat, visiting fellow at the ASEAN Studies Center at American University, and a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, takes up how Malaysia’s approach to the South China Sea has – or has not – changed in the face of China’s increased pressure on fellow claimants. Parameswaran concludes, based on documentary research and conversations with officials, that Kuala Lumpur maintains a basically constant “playing it safe” approach with respect to Beijing and the South China Sea. He lays out the constituent drivers of Malaysia’s “special relationship” with China, including the underappreciated fact that China has seemingly left Malaysia’s offshore oil and gas production in the South China Sea unmolested, despite attempts to punish Vietnam and the Philippines for similar activities. Nevertheless, the increasing temperature of Beijing’s efforts to advance its expansive claims has spurred Malaysia to invest in amphibious and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities – areas ripe for greater quiet cooperation between Malaysia and the United States. He also lays out additional vectors of effort for U.S.-Malaysia partnership, especially during the latter’s 2015 chairmanship of ASEAN. Overall, the paper usefully describes a country that is hewing close to a relationship that has long benefited it, while acknowledging that trends are not necessarily favorable and hedging modestly as a result.

Authors

  • Prashanth Parameswaran

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