Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, left, poses with Chinese President Xi Jinping for photographers during a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Friday. Pic: AP.

It was disastrous for Vietnam and it won’t work any better for KL, writes Asia Sentinel’s Philip Bowring

China is winning the battle over ownership of the South China Sea. Blatant aggression is succeeding here as surely as it did for Putin in Crimea – and with far less historical, ethnic or geographical justification.

One obvious illustration is the impunity with which China could sink a Vietnamese fishing boat as it proceeded with seizing an islet in the waters off Vietnam’s central coast and well within what to any neutral observer is clearly Vietnam’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

But a less-noticed illustration was the visit of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to China, organized to mark the 40th anniversary of Malaysia’s diplomatic recognition of the PRC – when Najib’s father Tun Razak was prime minister.

Even allowing for all the superficial bonhomie required for such celebrations, Najib went out of his way to avoid the one issue that is not only now on the international agenda but goes to the heart of Malaysia’s very existence: China’s claims to all of the sea and its islands rocks and shoals to within a few miles of the coast of the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

The recent tensions over flight MH 370 got a brief mention but that’s not the big issue for the future. Instead, Najib fawned on his hosts and tweeted how he was “touched by the wonderful hospitality” he had received.

This is a lesson learned to their distress by Vietnam’s leaders, who thought they could appease Beijing until China towed its US$1 billion drill ship virtually onto Vietnam’s doorstep with an armada of escort vessels that have fought off all eviction attempts.

Malaysia’s leaders like to imagine that by keeping a low profile and ignoring China’s moves against the Philippines and Vietnam it can stay out of trouble with China. Beijing will of course respond by doing little to alarm the Malaysians– yet. Now China has plans to substantially expand its already significant installation in the Spratlys’ Fiery Cross Reef to include an airstrip and seaport. It is considered to be a further step in China’s proclamation of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross Reef is clearly in Philippine waters.

For China, Najib is the perfect leader as far as their plans for gradual implementation of the nine-dash line by which China claims a sea whose littoral is largely inhabited by the people of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. The history of such “barbarian” peoples does not count as far as the Han race-based agenda is concerned.

At a time when Vietnam and the Philippines are trying to cooperate to defend their waters against Han expansionism, Malaysia is providing the necessary exception, allowing China to proceed with its divide-and-rule tactics. Note too how Malaysia’s weak-willed attitude is allowing China to take the diplomatic offensive even while it pursues aggressive tactics on the water, trying to line up some Asean states against what Beijing has the temerity to describe as “provocation by Vietnam.”

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