The last time Vietnam was the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), there was both a literal and figurative sea change in regional geopolitics. Perturbed by China’s rising assertiveness, core Southeast Asian countries, then led by China, teamed up with the Obama administration, which was about to declare its “Pivot to Asia” policy.
Things came to head in the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), when then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plunged the world's superpower straight into the heart of the South China Sea disputes, declaring, “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”
Cornered and feeling besieged by a potential counter-coalition, then Chinese Foreign Minister and current councilor Yang Jiechi lashed out at his regional counterparts, warning, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact.” Over the next decade, China radically and literally transformed the South China Sea landscape through massive reclamation activities and increasing militarization of disputed land features.
With Vietnam once more in the driving seat, some are wondering whether the Southeast Asian country will once again try to build a seeming counter-coalition against China. The problem, however, is a silent but festering dispute involving not two but three countries in the southwestern portions of the South China Sea, as Malaysia unilaterally explores energy resources in areas claimed by both Vietnam and China. The upshot is a dangerous and fluid naval standoff, which can spiral out of control and dissipate any hopes of ASEAN unity on the South China Sea question.
Malaysia’s New Assertiveness
Towards the end of last year, a strange development shocked China and much of the region. Just when everyone assumed that Malaysia and China were moving towards a new consensus over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, following then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s months-long criticisms against Chinese investments, Kuala Lumpur pulled off another surprise.
To China’s and Vietnam’s chagrin, Malaysia filed a new extended continental shelf claim to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), which directly challenged both Beijing’s and Hanoi’s claims over the southwestern portions of the South China Sea basin.
China quickly shot back with strident diplomatic language, accusing Malaysia of "seriously infring[ing] on China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea," where "China has historic rights” beyond doubt and dispute.
In a sign of Malaysia’s hardening stance, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah responded with even tougher rhetoric, dismissing China’s claims in the area as “ridiculous” and with "no legal basis". The then incoming ASEAN chair Vietnam, however, kept its silence, perhaps hoping to preserve a measure of solidarity with a fellow Southeast Asian country.
After all, the ASEAN is in the middle of crucial negations over a Code of Conduct to govern ongoing maritime disputes with China. A public fight between two Southeast Asian claimant states is the last thing that the region needed.
Raising the Stakes
During the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in January, Southeast Asian nations vowed to adopt greater unity on the South China Sea disputes, hoping to reassert ASEAN centrality in shaping the regional security architecture.
What was missing in the discussions, however, was an ongoing naval standoff that involved Malaysia, Vietnam, and China since December. Just as Malaysia, then under the Mahathir government, doubled down on its legal claims in the South China Sea, it also pressed ahead with unilateral development of energy resources in the area.
Satellite imageries by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) show that Malaysia has effectively triggered a three-way naval standoff in the Malaysia-Vietnam Joint Defined Area (JDA), which also falls within China’s nine-dashed-line.
The JDA, which covers the overlapping continental shelves of Malaysia and Vietnam, was supposed to be immune from such unilateral actions based on the 2009 joint Malaysian-Vietnamese extended continental shelf submission at the UN.
In late December, Malaysia deployed the West Capella, a British drillship contracted to Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas, to energy exploration blocks ND1 and ND2 within the JDA, thus directly challenging Vietnam, which responded by deploying its own maritime militia forces to the hydrocarbon-rich area.
Meanwhile, China expressed its displeasure by deploying its own gigantic coast guard vessels, including China Coast Guard (CCG) ships Haijing 5202 and 5203 as well as the 4,000 tons Zhaoduan-class vessel 5305. Instead of backing down, however, Malaysia upped the ante by sending Royal Malaysian Navy’s KD Jebat 2,270-ton guided missile destroyer to guard the West Capella energy exploration operations in early January.
Over the coming weeks, Kuala Lumpur effectively formed a protective armada by also deploying Kedah-class patrol vessel KD Kelantan and, days later, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency 45-meter patrol vessel, the KM Bagan Datuk as the West Capella drillship roamed contested waters for oil and gas deposits.
Meanwhile, Chinese coast guard vessels were also locked into a stare-down with Malaysia in the nearby Luconia Shoals, where the CCG maintains robust presence off the coast of Sarawak and across the Spratlys.
In particular, through deployment of an ever-larger armada of coast guard and para-military forces, China has been challenging Kuala Lumpur’s energy development project in block SK408, which is currently operated by Sapura Energy, a joint investments initiative of Petronas and Sarawak Shell.
So far, there are no signs of de-escalation. As the AMTI report shows, up until late-February, “West Capella and its offshore supply vessels continue to operate in block ND1. Vietnamese militia vessels remain on-station monitoring and likely demanding it halt its work,” while “Chinese militia and law enforcement ships continue to approach dangerously close to the rig and supply vessels, creating risks of collision as they have during other oil and gas operations over the last year.”
Far from a movement towards unity, Malaysia and Vietnam are increasingly on a collision course as smaller claimant states step up their efforts at developing energy resources within their continental shelves under the shadow of an increasingly dominant China. By flexing its muscle, Beijing is also making it clear that its armada of warships, coast guard vessels, and paramilitary forces will rein in any challenge to China’s expansive claims in adjacent waters.