Malaysia is surrounded by busy sea lanes, including the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea, and the Sulu and Sulawesi seas. These all function as maritime gateways for international trade flows vital to the nation’s economic life. In the interest of utilizing and protecting these sea lines of communication, the government has deployed various policies and infrastructure projects aimed at ensuring Malaysia’s place as a major maritime nation.

For instance, in November 2019, Malaysia secured an eighth consecutive term on the International Maritime Organization (IMO) governing council. During the 2019 Langkawi International Maritime and Aviation Exhibition, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad hailed the IMO as a significant platform for achieving the nation’s goal of being a major partner in the international maritime community.

Along the same lines, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced plans to establish a Maritime Centre of Excellence in 2020 to promote Malaysia’s commitment to the sea and its wellbeing. This will complement the role played by agencies such as the Maritime Institute of Malaysia, established in 1993, in promoting the country’s maritime agenda and advising the government on related issues in a holistic and integrated manner.

And in December 2019, the Ministry of Defense published a white paper outlining Malaysia’s defense policy, strategy, and capabilities between 2021 and 2031. The white paper is based on three primary concerns in the new global security environment: uncertain foreign power relations, the geographical complexity of Southeast Asia, and non-traditional security threats, all of which have a strong maritime component. The white paper also highlights the risk that U.S.-China competition poses to ASEAN centrality in regional affairs.

Managing the South China Sea Disputes

But beyond these steps to increase Malaysia’s general maritime governance capabilities, the government must respond to specific developments in the region. These responses are governed by the competing strategic priorities of protecting Malaysia’s sovereignty and ensuring that external entities will not compromise or threaten its wellbeing while simultaneously promoting cooperation as the basis for stability within the region.

The South China Sea is a potential flashpoint that requires judicious handling. Disputes in the area should be settled through peaceful means using a rule-based approach and universally recognized principles of international law such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The disputed waterway remains a priority theater on the security front for Malaysia in 2020 and the government has taken two notable policy steps in recent months that signal its approach to the issue.

First, in September 2019, Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs published its Foreign Policy Framework of the New Malaysia. The document, which has the theme “Change in Continuity,” establishes the nation’s foreign policy priorities and direction, especially regarding its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. It highlights that issues relating to the South China Sea are to be dealt with on the basis of close cooperation with ASEAN member states and major powers.

Second, in December 2019, Malaysia made a partial submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf claiming an extended continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the northern part of the South China Sea. The submission was made without prejudice to the issue of delimitation and reflects Malaysia’s consistency in exercising its rights under UNCLOS despite objections and resistance from other countries. Nevertheless, the submission represented a more proactive side of Malaysian maritime policy aimed at protecting its sovereign rights.

Malaysia has also continuously called for the full implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to manage the disputes. Thus far, Malaysia has been consistent in urging parties to the disputes to avoid the use of force, intimidation, or coercion, and to exercise restraint. As the Foreign Policy Framework says, Malaysia seeks non-militarization of the South China Sea and for it to be an area of peace, friendship, and trade.

Underlying these maritime security issues is Malaysia’s paramount need for an ocean governance regime, to include security, safety, economy, and the environment. This is especially true as the future will bring more formidable and complex challenges. Those will require policies and strategies that are as adaptable as they are robust to ensure that Malaysia’s maritime domains, and by extension its national interests, will remain safeguarded and uncompromised. A broad and diverse set of maritime matters will need constant attention from various ministries, including the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Defense. Over the last year, the government has taken important steps in recognition of these challenges. But there is much work left to do.

About Sumathy Permal

Sumathy Permal is Fellow and Head of the Centre for the Straits of Malacca with the Maritime Institute of Malaysia. She is on the editorial board of the Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs Australia and an Associate Member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies. She is a also a Fellow in the Professional Fellow On-Demand Exchange Program by the U.S. Department of State.