China-Malaysia Relations: Navigating a Complex Geopolitical Sea – Part Two: The South China Sea Issue

5 September 2017 Professor Vivian Louis Forbes, FDI Associate Download PDF

Key Points

  • Although not terrestrial neighbours, China and Malaysia have a potential maritime boundary to be negotiated in the South China Sea.
  • Negotiations to delimit the maritime boundary are dependent upon many factors, including the other claimant states in the South China Sea.
  • Malaysia will increasingly be confronted by the uncomfortable prospect that its main economic partner may also become a growing security threat.
  • Trade and financial considerations mean that Malaysia may find its hands tied on the South China Sea issue.


The Government of Malaysia has stated on several occasions that it would not compromise on its claims in the South China Sea. The Government of China is on record that its sovereignty over all the features within what is now a 10-Dash Line is indisputable. That intractability, combined with large and growing trading links, as discussed in Part One of this analysis, has the potential to place Malaysia in an awkward situation whereby its security, if not territorial integrity, is actively compromised by its primary economic partner.


Malaysia was the fifth claimant state to join the territorial fray in the South China Sea, which came to international focus in December 1979, with the publication of a map that delineated the outer limits of Malaysia’s continental shelf with terminal and turning points, the 84 geographical co-ordinates of which were listed on the map. Within that defined continental shelf limit, a number of the marine features were shown as Malaysian territory. Included were Amboyna Cay (Pulau Kecil Amboyna) Commodore Reef (Terumbu Laksamana) and Swallow Reef (Terumbu Layang-Layang; its status was subsequently amended to Pulau [Island] Layang-Layang). The islands, reefs and other bathymetric features are all located on the continental shelf of the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

China and Malaysia have yet to delimit their maritime boundary and delineate zones of maritime jurisdiction in the South China Sea basin. In particular, all claimant states must negotiate permanent boundaries in the vicinity of the Spratly Group, which includes insular features scattered over an area of 240,000km2. Determining the sovereignty over these hotly disputed islands, islets, reefs, rocks and sand cays is the first step in resolving this complex border problem.[1] Since 12 July 2016, the international community has been aware that none of the insular features of the Spratly Group in the South China Sea are entitled to generate an Exclusive Economic Zone or legal continental shelf. Some of the features may only be permitted to accrue a Territorial Sea of 12 nautical miles width. The width of such a zone may, in any case, may be restricted in the permissible limits due to the proximity of neighbouring claimants.

The Government of Malaysia has stated on several occasions that it would not compromise on its claims in the South China Sea. The Government of China is on record that its sovereignty over all the features within the 10-Dash Line is indisputable. Yes, the map now depicts a 10-Dash Line. On this fact alone, China stands firm. It is, however, committed to further advance the proper settlement of the South China Sea issue through bilateral channels. On 9 May 2009, China issued a protest to the joint submission made by Malaysia and Vietnam for extended continental shelf rights to the Commission on the Legal Continental Shelf, in accordance with the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.[2]

For China, control of the South China Sea is a critical objective towards ensuring the economic and political survival of the Communist Party Government and having surety that the Straits of Malacca and Singapore will continue to offer safety of navigation at all times.

A Subtle (or Blatant) Sovereignty Stance

Since 2012, the PLA (Navy) has been periodically laying steel sovereignty markers on the seabed of James Shoal at a depth of 22 metres. Responses, such as that from the Malaysian Government, that it would be ‘taking diplomatic action’, have been muted. In 2013, China “seized” Luconia Shoal, which is about 84 nautical miles north off the coast of Sarawak and on Malaysia’s natural continental shelf. It is alleged that a Chinese coast guard ship was anchored on the shoals from April 2013 until 2015. Luconia Shoal is thought to be rich in hydrocarbon deposits.

On 26 January 2014, a Chinese taskforce of three warships from the South China Sea fleet held a sovereignty oath-swearing ceremony at James Shoal. The feature is a mere 43 nautical miles from the coast of Sarawak. Figure 1 (below) illustrates the extent of the various claims and important insular features.

Fig 1. Mysia Cont Shelf Limits

After the publication of the PCA’s Ruling on the South China Sea case on 12 July 2016, an unwritten edict from Malaysian officials inferred that the sovereignty issue should not be mentioned. No clarification was offered by the officials. Such a response only produces more queries, given that the territorial claim by China, as portrayed on its authorised maps depicting Dash Line 4 of the 2009 version, of the official map (shown in red, Figure 3, below) is relatively close to the Malaysian coast, perhaps too close for comfort. The line is not coincident with a 1984 version, which was based on the map published circa 1947 by the Nationalist government of the Republic of China. Those lines are shown in Figures 2 and 3, below; both illustrations are taken from a study undertaken by the US Department of State that was published on 5 December 2014. The study observed that the version of 2009 was cartographically inconsistent with other maps produced by the Government of China.[3]

Fig 2. China Claim Sarawak

Additionally, the dashes on the 2009 map do not appear to be in identical geographical locations as the dashes on the 2013-14 maps published by SINOMAPS and those of its predecessor, Cartographic Publishing House, dating back to 1984.

Fig 3. Line 4

There were again muted protests by successive Malaysian Governments over the actions taken by China and, in particular, by the PLA (Navy) at James and Luconia Shoals and in its Notice to Mariners, which inferred that platforms may be erected at six locations (the geographical co-ordinates of which were listed), in the vicinity of Brunei and Malaysia.[4]

Points to Ponder

From December 2014 to the present day, many questions have been raised by the Malaysian media as international relations and geo-strategic analysts focussed their research and studies on China and the South-East Asian region. For example:

  • What are the benefits for China and Malaysia of joint military exercises?
  • Can China rebuild its “special relationship” with Malaysia?
  • Did Chinese naval vessels encroach into Malaysian “waters”? The Defence Minister appears to contradict official reports in initial reaction.
  • Is there – and should there be – a Malaysian “pushback” against China in the South China Sea?
  • Will the sovereignty dispute disrupt the Belt and Road Initiative?
  • Is China now Malaysia’s largest investor?
  • Is Malaysia’s outreach to China a threat to its ties with the US?
  • What can be read into the reactions of Indonesia and Singapore to perceived attention given to China by Malaysia and the Maritime Silk Road and related port developments?

China has long realised that it faced a “Malacca Dilemma”, a concern for the security of its hydrocarbon imports using the sea lanes of South-East Asia, in particular, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.[5] Malaysia, too, now faces a dilemma: reconciling the deepening relationship with its largest trading partner with the uncomfortable reality that that same partner is also a growing security threat. This is an intractable political and strategic conundrum that Malaysia — and most ASEAN member states, especially the South China Sea claimant states — will have to address sooner rather than later.

Picking up on that predicament, celebrated Malaysian cartoonist Zunar offers a graphic which portrays, in Figure 4 (below), a perception of Malaysia (as “Malayxia”) forming a part of “greater (wilayah) China”.

Fig 4. Zunar Cartoon

Certainly, there are concerns in Malaysia, and perhaps elsewhere in the region, of the possible consequences of closer ties with China and the deepening economic and political pressure that may ensue. Peninsular Malaysia’s excellent location attracts air, maritime, rail and road routes and it is of strategic importance to East and West. The states of Johor, Malacca, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak are all keen to accept development funded by Chinese investments. In the years to come, Malaysia may find that it has its hands tied when dealing with the South China Sea issue, especially as the centrality of ports and trade routes to national security and economic development allows for a blurring of the distinction between economic and military purposes.



[1] Forbes, V.L., ‘China and Malaysia: Promoting Economic Growth Overshadows Sovereignty Dispute’, in Elleman et al (2013). See also, Forbes, V.L., ‘Artificial Islands in the South China Sea: Rationale for Terrestrial Increase, Incremental Maritime Jurisdictional Creep and Military Bases’, Journal of Defence and Security, Vol. 6, № 1, 2015, pp. 30-55.

[2] Forbes, V.L., ‘Geopolitics, Energy Security and ‘Soft-Shoe Diplomacy in the South China Sea’, Journal of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations, July 2015. See also the Joint Submission of Malaysia and Vietnam and the subsequent note verbale, available on the website of the UN Division of Law and Oceans Affairs.

[3]China: Maritime Claims in the South China Sea’, Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, Limits in the Seas № 143, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, Department of State: Washington DC, 5 December 2014.

[4] ‘Notice to Mariners’, PLA (Navy), November 2014. See also Hussein, H.T., ‘Malaysia’s Defence and Security Policies’, Journal of Defence and Security, Vol. 6, № 1, 2015, pp. 1-10.

[5] The Malacca Dilemma prompted the MoU of 2011. See Gong, L., ‘Protecting Our Seas: China’s Efforts to Protect the Seas’, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, RSIS Commentary № 123, 22 June 2017, and Grant, S., ‘Water Wars: Tugs-of-War, Figurative and Literal’, 30 June 2017.

About the Author

Dr Forbes is an Adjunct Research Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China and a Distinguished Research Fellow and Guest Professor at the China Institute for Boundary and Ocean Studies, Wuhan University, Wuhan, China. He is affiliated at the professorial level with other institutions in Australia, China and Malaysia.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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