By Collins Chong

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Malaysia’s conventional and decades old approach to the South China Sea conflict in using quiet and backdoor diplomacy is once again in the limelight with the repeated incursions and grey zone operations by Beijing over the years, the latest on February 17 where the China Coast Guard 5403 vessel sailed off the coast of Malaysia. Most of these including the latest incident did not get much awareness and attention.
According to SeaLight, a Stanford University project focused on grey zone activities in the South China Sea, it sets off a period of intrusive patrolling into Malaysia’s oil and gas fields and the patrol is still ongoing.
Past incidents including the West Capella incident has seen Malaysia’s intent to prevent an escalatory aftermath, and even chastising Washington’s intent to offer support.
Beijing claims about 95 percent of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, covering fishery-rich waters that Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines also claim.
Public awareness and understanding have been low, and the critical importance of Malaysia’s oil and gas deposits to the national economy and as the predominant tool for national survival in empowering the country’s economy has not been fully grasped and understood by the quarters.
Manila has taken a direct approach in standing up to its rights and in using the exposure method to expose the realities on the sea, recording the various incursions and intimidating actions taken by the Chinese vessels for a wider global audience.
Malaysia has for long avoided that path, and the future risks remain unforeseen as to how long the country can rely on this approach in safeguarding its economic and trade interests with Beijing without harming the long term sovereignty and energy security.
Experts have pointed out that there were indications Beijing was using cyber espionage to bolster its grey zone operations in the South China Sea, including to prevent Malaysia from developing its gas fields.
Others can call this in whatever terms academically or technically, but the fact remains that the Beijing orbit and the fear factor remain the region’s biggest Achilles heel with intensifying arms races and spiralling security dilemma. China continues to use its economic influence and tools to dictate  elsewhere in Southeast Asia, in exchange for tolerance of its activities in the disputed sea.
Perpetual Economic Dependence Trap
China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner since 2009, with total trade between both nations reaching a record US$203.6 billion in 2022. In the same year, Malaysia’s exports of palm oil and related products to China amounted to US$3.72 billion, accounting for 11.4 per cent of the country’s total worldwide exports of these products.
In 2023, China stated that it would invest an estimated US$38.64 billion in Malaysia, including in the petrochemical and automotive industries, while Chinese carmaker Geely in July announced a US$10 billion plan to develop Malaysia’s auto-making hub.
These statistics reaffirmed the deep economic trap that Kuala Lumpur is facing in its external economic ties, and despite recent overtures to diversify the source of trade and resources and supply chain resilience, the results and returns have been paltry, looking at the statistics.
This creates a lose-lose situation where efforts to strengthen defensive and deterrent capacities will be futile and derailed, as the country is trapped in not being able to explore and expand the full spectrum of security options with external powers, especially the West. Talks or security strategies to form direct alliances with the West or the formation of Asian Nato or in hosting American forces and providing docking bases for AUKUS submarines are all off the table at least for years, in as long as the Beijing trap of economic dependence and the country’s decades old non-alignment mantra are in place.
As much as Malaysia has started to diversify its defence and security ties with the courting of Japan, Turkiye and other Middle Eastern partners, the fact remains that the US remains the biggest and most important defence partner and assurance for Malaysia.
In December, Japan and Malaysia sealed a security assistance deal that included a US$2.8 million grant to boost Malaysia’s maritime security, and the provision of rescue boats and supplies.
This new OSA venture is limited by the scope and type of assets delivered and is a symbolic message being sent to Beijing and regional players that it has the options to leverage on other regional players for defence.
However, for as long as the subdued stance on the South China Sea and the neutrality dogma persist, it is hard for real and credible deterrence and defensive capacities to be galvanised without direct military alliances and involvement of Washington and the West.
Beijing’s continuous grey zone and cabbage strategies in the disputed zones create a dangerous second front of escalating and spiralling tensions in the region, apart from the Taiwan dilemma.
Another perplexing dogma is Malaysia’s deal to buy Chinese naval ships for its defensive and deterrence needs, where one of the main risks to Malaysia’s assets and sovereignty in South China Sea is China itself.
Beijing’s Persistent Naval Pressure
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a research institution at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., asserted that, China Coast Guard (CCG) presence in the South China Sea is more robust than ever, in maintaining  near-daily patrols at key features claimed by China and other neighboring countries. 
This portrays Beijing’s iron clad determination to assert control over the claimed nine dash line, as stated in the report.
According to AMTI, such survey vessel incursions are part of Beijing's attempts to assert control over the South China Sea.
Beijing has also conducted dozens of other surveys throughout the South China Sea in recent years that ventured into the EEZs of Southeast Asian nations. China’s survey fleet is the largest and most active in the Indo-Pacific.
The survey fleet and actions serve as both sending a message to regional players, and providing valuable data for civilian and military purposes, including geologic assessments and detecting submarines.The vessels used can also utilise onboard technologies to gather naval intelligence on foreign military facilities and vessels.
As AMTI reported, Beijing operates under a double standard where it demands other nations request permission to conduct military surveys in its EEZ but does not get permission for its vessels to conduct surveys abroad.
Analysts including Gaute Friis, a defence innovation scholar at Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, said there were indications that Beijing was using cyber espionage to support its grey zone operations in the South China Sea, including to prevent Malaysia from developing its subsea gas fields.
Friis also pointed to recent evidence where some of these cyber operations were aimed at gathering information from the growing Coastguard capacities to pressure offshore energy companies in Kasawari.
Escaping The Ingrained Defence Trap
Malaysia has always been a maritime nation, but it lacks sufficient naval deterrent capacity.Regardless of how much and hard Malaysia is going to upgrade its naval capacity and other military and deterrent capabilities, it will never match the power capacities  of Beijing and its expansive and runaway naval expansion. Choosing the right allies and security partners therefore remains critical. 
China maintains the world’s third strongest military compared to Malaysia at No. 34, according to the defense database
Reliance on preventive diplomacy and the sustained use of existing multilateral framework including ASEAN concept of neutrality and conflict prevention mechanism to reduce risks has not yielded the results.
As much as Malaysia knows that it needs to move beyond the stagnating approach of wait and see approach and backdoor diplomacy, including the monitoring capacity of the movements in the South China Sea with the new procurement of long range radar assets from France, it is still limited by the constraint of budget and internal constraints in the defence and procurement domains.
Malaysia must increase its total defence mechanism, especially in seeing how other regional members have been increasing the GDP percentage spending on defence.
The West and Pact of Democracies Remain the Best Bet
Malaysia will need continuous Western support in key bases for naval readiness and deterrent capacity in key zones especially Penang and Melaka in Strait of Malacca and Kuantan base and Sarawak and Sabah for the deterrent and second strike capacity that can slow the counter efforts by China in case of a full blown conflict in South China Sea and Taiwan.
However, in near term prospect, Malaysia might not directly pivot to the West for such overtures and assurance in preserving its strict non aligned mantra, but will continue to procure low to medium scale and non lethal assets in upping the monitoring capabilities in a level that is not desired to invite backfiring measures from Beijing.
In the long term calculation, Malaysia will want to strengthen joint regional security capacity, readiness and resilience at the ASEAN common solidarity level. Malaysia will pursue a concurrent three-pronged approach of defence diversification, regional solidarity and continuous traditional defence support in the near term.
This is insufficient and needs to change. Malaysia must be bold to dictate and change its own defence and security needs.Malaysia must strategically place itself to get the best of the West’s China containment from Australia, Japan, the UK, India and the US.  By this, a direct and deeper military alliance and security partnership is needed as the most credible and reassuring critical defensive need in the future, with proper guardrails and friendshoring strategies. 
Efforts to expand the Quad and a possible Asian Nato will be the strategies of the future, adding to the current FPDA and bilateral defensive overtures and diversification. A new near geographical regional defensive pact can also be explored in the form of similar threat response and commonality in the values of freedom and democracy and as an effective complement to the FPDA in the form of Malaysia-India-Indonesia-Singapore-Australia pact (MIISA). To this end, the West and the pooled strength of democracies will always be the best bet.
*Collins Chong Yew Keat is a Universiti Malaya foreign affairs and security strategist.*