I do not know if I should be consider the social media outcry as ironic or otherwise. For I have been highlighting the potential threat that is posed by China since at least 2012.
When I began to highlight the threats posed by China in my articles back then, I had highlighted the need for Malaysian government to strengthen our Royal Malaysian Navy with more naval surface combatant vessels, especially with the potential of having our claims in the Spratly's being challenged by China as she too has overlapping claims with us.
It fell mostly on deaf ears. Social media wasn't that hot yet back then. And I prefer to write to the Perajurit, mostly because my blogging effort was in shambles.
What did I wrote back then?
It would be very difficult for me to recall back what I wrote. It was far too long ago. I only recalled touching on UNCLOS, or the law of free navigation, which is good, because I now think my writing back then was inaccurate. Meeting with a good friend who is a maritime expert (he's my maritime adviser) has helped me to understand better of the issue in South China Sea.
So what is the current issue about?
The current issue is on China's encroachment into our Economic Exclusive Zone or EEZ for short. While netizens had been up a arms against our government's apparent inaction (some insinuated the government had sold off the nation for a couple of panda bear), the real issue is more complex than we realize.
Apparently, there's two way to interpret UNCLOS on the issue of EEZ. The first interpretation calls for EEZ as part of the territorial waters of a sovereign nation. This was the interpretation that I had held to before this. To me back then, Malaysia's sovereignty is extended out to our EEZ.
Another interpretation is that EEZ is not part of a country's sovereignty. But the sovereign nation can and is allowed to exploit the resources in the zone.
In the case of China's CGC being found in our waters, the ships were actually found outside our territorial waters but within our EEZ.
So what is territorial waters and what is EEZ?
Territorial waters is defined as waters up to 12 nautical miles from the shore of a littoral state. UNCLOS allows this to be defined up to 24 nautical miles, but not many nations do recognize that.
EEZ on the other hand cover waters outside the 12 nautical miles up to 200 nautical miles of a littoral nation's shore.
In this case, China's CGC were found outside the 12 nautical miles. If the ships enroach into this 12 nautical mile barrier, our Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency has the right to force the ship to leave our shores by force.
Why MMEA and not Navy?
This is what we call as playing by the book. China has sent its CGC. Both are coast guard agencies, and technically are considered as civilian instead of military.
Thus, sending MMEA to shadow the CGC vessel is the right move. Sending RMN would be seen as an escalation of the situation and this may result in intervention by PLA - Navy.
Therefore, we try to minimize the conflict by sending MMEA.
It is our waters. Why should we be scared?
In any potential conflict, the country that escalates an already hot situation will be blamed as the culprit. That was why US started the Vietnam War by insinuating that North Vietnamese Navy started the war by shooting at their navy. It doesn't matter that the US ships were in a way blocking the Gulf of Tonkin. And it doesn't even matter that the Vietnamese Navy did not even fire the first shot.
With consideration of our current government's trust deficit, Malaysians are likely to be blaming our government for firing the first shot. Never mind that MMEA or RMN defending the nation. The current political quagmire may see the government being blamed for trying to divert attention away from 'mismanagement' by creating a war, a boogeyman.
What is our government doing to resolve the issue?
I'll define the government's effort in resolving the issue into several type of actions.
I was reliably advised that Malaysian government has been engaging with China on weekly basis. Every engagement between both nations' forces had been highlighted to China, albeit in a more respectful manner as compared to how the Philippines is handling the issue. This face-saving method has so far help to prevent further escalation of the already heated event.
One of the notable efforts by Malaysian government to lessen the conflict is by prioritizing China-owned companies in awarding government contract.
To any single person, this is seen like a stupid move. When you get threatened, you give business to the guy that is threatening you. But, on the other hand, by giving more business opportunities to our bullies, they would get concerned about hurting us too much that it would affect their business.
The move also allows Malaysian government to balance our interest with that of both China and US.
There are 2 major legislative move that had been made by Malaysian government to address the potential threat from China.
- Introduction of Territorial Waters Act 2012. The introduction of this act was necessitated by the repeal of Internal Security Act way back in 2011. The repealed law had resulted in around 30 other laws to be invalidated (this was part of Tan Sri Musa Hassan, former IGP's explanation during a certain briefing that I had attended). Thus, Territorial Waters Act had to be introduced to prevent China from claiming the rocky outcrops within our EEZ as belonging to China.
- Introduction of National Security Council Bill. I will leave this as it is. No further explanation as I have explained it in my previous article.
The following are the efforts done by the military/MMEA to boost up our capabilities facing China. .
- Purchase of 6 SGPV for RMN. While this will take time before the first ships will be sea-worthy, this is already a good long-term effort.
- Purchase of 6 - 8 OPV for MMEA. As mentioned earlier, the best move is to strengthen MMEA so MMEA can match each and every move by CGC.
- Request by the Navy Chief to have a Rules of Engagement when facing both China's CGC and PLA - Navy. This rules of engagement would then be shared with China, so to allow both sides to understand what each other is doing to prevent a certain move being misunderstood and cause a shooting war.
- Engaging with PLA - Navy in inaugural joint-military exercise between both nations. This is what we called as Confidence Building Measure, or CBM. It is hoped that the measure will help to prevent war when diplomacy fails, soldiers would talk to each other to prevent it from being blown out of proportion.
Are there anything else?
Yes, there are. The recent brouhaha sounds more like someone is purposely highlighting the issue so they can get political mileage. Why do I say so? Because in this current incident, both Malaysia and China had acted within international laws. And yet, way back in March 2013, China did conduct a naval military exercise within the waters of Bintulu. Why noise now and not then?