The submerged reef under turquoise seas about 80km off Malaysia’s Borneo Island state of Sarawak would be easy to miss, but two Chinese naval exercises conducted in less than a year around the James Shoal (Zengmu Shoal, 曾母暗沙) have shocked Kuala Lumpur and led to a significant shift in its approach to China’s claims to the disputed South China Sea, senior diplomats told reporters.
The reef lies outside Malaysia’s territorial waters, but inside its 200 nautical mile (411km) exclusive economic zone, and is claimed by Taipei, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur.
In particular, the latest incident in January prompted Malaysia to quietly step up cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam — the two Southeast Asian nations which are most outspoken over China’s moves in the region — in trying to tie Beijing to binding rules of conduct in the South China Sea, the diplomats said.
Beijing’s growing naval assertiveness could also push Kuala Lumpur closer to the US, its top security ally, thereby deepening divisions between Southeast Asia and China over the potentially mineral-rich waters.
Malaysia has traditionally played down security concerns in pursuit of closer economic ties with China, its biggest trade partner.
The James Shoal is 1,800km from China. It is closer to Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia — nearly all of Southeast Asia — than it is to China’s coast.
Nevertheless, Beijing regards the waters as its southernmost territory, the bottom of a looping so-called nine-dash line on maps that comprise 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer South China Sea.
Photographs from China’s state media on Jan. 26 showed hundreds of Chinese sailors standing to attention on a warship, backed by two destroyers and a helicopter that was reported to be at James Shoal.
Malaysia’s navy chief denied the Chinese media reports at the time, telling state news agency Bernama that the ships were far from Malaysian waters, which are rich in the oil and gas that power the nation’s economy. He may have been able to deny the incursion because Malaysian forces did not monitor or sight the Chinese flotilla, security analysts said.
However, diplomatic and naval security sources have told reporters that the exercise by three warships, which included an oath-taking ceremony to defend China’s sovereignty, almost certainly took place at or close to James Shoal.
“It’s a wake-up call that it could happen to us and it is happening to us,” Tang Siew Mun (鄧秀岷), a foreign policy specialist at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies who advises the government, said of the recent incidents.
“For some time we believed in this special relationship ... James Shoal has shown to us over and again that when it comes to China protecting its sovereignty and national interest, it’s a different ball game,” Tang said.
Neither the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s office responded to requests for comment.
While Kuala Lumpur’s public response to the January incident was typically low-key, senior diplomats from other Southeast Asian nations said their Malaysian counterparts had been far more active since then in pushing for a common stance in talks with China over a code of conduct.
Officials from the 10-member ASEAN and China will resume negotiations in Singapore on March 18 after agreeing to accelerate talks last year that have made little headway so far.