Tussle with US forcing China to seek support of smaller neighbours, says don

Malaysia is seeking an Asean solution to the dispute in the South China Sea, where Chinese vessels have been seen frequently. (File pic)

PETALING JAYA: China’s escalating rivalry with the United States has put pressure on it to seek support from its smaller neighbours but its initiative is likely to be met with resistance from Malaysia, a Chinese professor says.

Zhang Mingliang, an associate professor specialising in South China Sea studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou, told South China Morning Post that with the immense pressure from the trade war with the US, China needs to stabilise its neighbourhood and prevent them criticising it.

“But under the leadership of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia understands the situation well and knows clearly that it now has more leverage over China.”

He said Malaysia realises that having a “bilateral consultation mechanism” to discuss disputes exclusively with Malaysia would put it at a disadvantage.

The Hong Kong-based newspaper also quoted a source familiar with China-Malaysia ties as saying Beijing had suggested setting up such a bilateral mechanism to discuss disputes exclusively with Malaysia — one of the more vocal claimants in the disputed waters since Mahathir took power last year.

It said China had been pushing Malaysia to solve the two countries’ South China Sea dispute in the hope of calming one of its most important neighbours.

Beijing has been aiming to negotiate a code of conduct for the South China Sea with Asean countries and complete a first draft of a pact by the end of this year, but the two sides remain far apart, the daily added.

It said China has a vice-ministerial-level mechanism with the Philippines, a co-claimant, with officials first meeting in 2017.

Manila won a United Nations arbitration case on Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea. However, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has chosen to pursue closer ties with China in exchange for aid to build his country’s infrastructure, the newspaper said.

However, Malaysia has been reluctant to agree to the same mechanism as it is seen as a “divide and rule” tactic by China.

Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, in a recent radio interview, pretty much said the same, saying Malaysia sought an Asean solution to the South China Sea dispute.

“China is actually asking each and every one of the 10 Asean member states, with the exception of a few such as Myanmar, if it can discuss the matter on a bilateral basis.

“But Malaysia has always been steadfast. We always tell Beijing that we will discuss the South China Sea on a group basis.”