The Buzz

The Chinese Navy and the Quest for Access

In a quiet but undoubtedly significant event, Admiral Wu Shengli (吴胜利), commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and a member of the PRC’s Central Military Commission recently visited Malaysia with an entourage of 10 senior officials. During his visit, Admiral Wu secured agreement from the Malaysian Navy for the ships of the PLA Navy to use the port of Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo as a "stopover location" to "strengthen defence ties between the two countries."

What’s remarkable is the environment in which this agreement has been reached. China’s military vessels have been active in Malaysia’s territorial waters off Borneo from 2011. Since 2013, the number of Chinese naval and coast guard vessels patrolling and anchoring around Malaysia’s Luconia Shoals and James Shoal, both of which are within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, has increased greatly, and PRC territory markers have been erected on the latter.

In June, National Security Minister Shahidan Kassim said that Malaysia would protest to China about the PRC Coast Guard ship long anchored in Malaysian waters at Luconia Shoals, while legislators voiced their unhappiness with the situation. The Malaysian Foreign Ministry has more recently been lodging weekly protests with Beijing over the presence of the Chinese ship in the area. While the anchored PRC ship is being monitored, there have been reports that Malaysian fishermen are still being driven away from the shoals by Chinese threats to facilitate Chinese fishing boats’ exploitation of the area.

Further, only a day after Admiral Wu left Malaysia, the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, visited Sabah and started berating ‘a regional superpower’ which has built facilities on three atolls just 155km from Sabah and "3,218km from its mainland.' "To claim this part of the South China Sea as theirs due to historical narrative is invalid," the Deputy Prime Minister Zahid noted.

Why then do we have this agreement now by the Malaysian Navy for Chinese navy port access to Sabah? And which part of the Malaysian administration was responsible for approving it?

Access to a northern Borneo port has long been an ambition of the PLA Navy in its efforts to expand control in the South China Sea. Two years ago, in a Strategist posting entitled Xi Jinping and the Sabah enigma, I noted how Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Sabah (subsequently aborted) reflected PRC efforts to increase links with that key region of northern Borneo. Chinese naval personnel first visited Kota Kinabalu in August 2013.