‘Divide and conquer Asean’: China tries to go one on one with Malaysia to settle South China Sea disputes

China has been pushing Malaysia to solve the two countries’ South China Sea disputes in the hope of calming one of its most important neighbours.

A source familiar with China-Malaysia ties said Beijing had suggested setting up a “bilateral consultation mechanism” to discuss disputes exclusively with Malaysia – one of the more vocal claimants in the disputed waters since Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took power last year.

Beijing has been aiming to negotiate a code of conduct for the South China Sea with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and complete a first draft of a pact by the end of this year, but the two sides remain far apart.

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

Manila won a landmark legal victory in a United Nations arbitration case on Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued closer ties with China in exchange for aid and help to build his country’s infrastructure.

Malaysia has been reluctant to agree to the same mechanism, which the source described as no more than China’s “divide and conquer” tactic in dealing with its smaller neighbours.

“China has always preferred to talk separately with individual countries, so that when the countries group together there is no more need for discussion and they would just endorse what China puts on the table,” he said.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah offered a similar assessment earlier this week, saying Kuala Lumpur was seeking to address disputes multilaterally rather than only with Beijing.

“Malaysia is sticking to Asean-centric ways of dealing with China on the South China Sea,” he said in an interview with radio station BFM 89.9.

“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.”

Zhang Mingliang, an associate professor specialising in South China Sea studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said China’s escalating rivalry with the United States had put pressure on it to seek support from its smaller neighbours, but that its initiative was likely to be met with resistance from Malaysia.

“With the immense pressure from the trade war with the US, China needs to stabilise its neighbourhood and prevent them criticising,” he said.

“But under the leadership of Mahathir, Malaysia understands the situation well and knows clearly that it now has more leverage over China, and that going bilateral would put it at a disadvantage.”

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