Malaysia’s “Special Relationship” with China and the South China Sea: Not So Special Anymore

MMEA Bombardier 415 Surveillance Flight over South Luconia Shoal, where Chinese Coast Guard Ships are reported to have established a permanent presence. June 2015 (Facebook)

On June 2, 2015, Minister Shahidan bin Kassim held a press conference to announce an “intrusion” by a foreign vessel in the South Luconia Shoals (Beting Patinggi Ali, in Malay). A picture of the vessel, China Coast Guard (CCG) hull number 1123, was taken during a surveillance flight over the area on which the minister had flown and was subsequently released on his Facebook page.1 He announced that Malaysia was responding to the incident by filing an official protest with Beijing and dispatching navy (RMN) and coast guard (MMEA) vessels to “monitor the vessels twenty-four seven.”2 According to a statement on his Facebook page along with photos, the RMN and MMEA vessels were anchored less than one nautical mile (nm) from CCG 1123, which was itself anchored near the shoals, leading to what is, in effect, an ongoing confrontation in the area.

Coverage in the western press has described Malaysia’s response as “much firmer and more public,”3 even “unusually assertive.”4 According to one analysis, the fact that the intrusion will be taken up and protested at the diplomatic level “could be a signal that Kuala Lumpur has toughened its stance vis-à-vis China’s behavior.”5 Others have noted “an apparent departure from Kuala Lumpur’s previous low key approach.”6 But has Malaysia’s approach really changed, and if so, how? The extent to which it has actually toughened its stance on China’s behavior or has become more assertive in the South China Sea is debatable. It is true that the press coverage surrounding the episode was highly unusual for Malaysia, which had previously adopted a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ towards incidents of this nature, chosing not to publicize them. Beyond the new publicity, however, the response outlined by the minister actually differs little in substance from previous Malaysian responses to Chinese activities in the same area, which primarily revolved around a combination of diplomatic protest and active surveillance at sea.

Rather than a substantive shift in policy, the response may be more emblematic of persistent political inertia that has resisted making difficult strategic decisions. The requirement for new strategic thinking has been obscured by what many in the country continue to regard as a “special relationship” with China. Chinese activities over the past several years in the waters off Malaysian Borneo have called into question the validity of this perception, however, and have placed Prime Minister Najib Razak in an increasingly awkward and potentially vulnerable position domestically. Such activities are representative of wider geostrategic shifts occurring and will only become more pronounced as China continues to push further south into the South China Sea.

Political inertia is being slowly diminished by a new operational reality, which has given rise to increasing concern within the government. With this concern has come new questions about Malaysia’s relationship with China, but these questions will not answer themselves. They will require new and difficult answers from the Malaysian leadership, which may necessitate a reappraisal of the country’s broader approach to the disputes and to ASEAN.

A New Island Emerges

The recent confrontation has brought to the fore one of the least well known, but perhaps increasingly important, disputes in the South China Sea. While incidents between China, Vietnam and the Philippines have received comparatively greater publicity, a growing number of incidents further south involving Malaysia have until recently received less attention. The most serious of these have occurred in the vicinity of South Luconia Shoals, the site of the ongoing confrontation between Malaysian and Chinese vessels. South Luconia Shoals is “one of the largest and least known” reef complexes anywhere in the South China Sea. 7 It lies just 84 nm off the coast of Malaysian Sarawak, to the southwest of the Spratlys, and is composed of six reefs which together cover nearly one thousand square kilometers.8 In addition to being one of the largest reef complexes, it may also be one of the most resource rich areas of the South China Sea, with large populations of fish as well as potentially substantial deposits of both oil and natural gas (a point highlighted by Shahidan9). This potential is already being exploited by Malaysia, which operates active oil and gas fields in the area, including the Central Luconia Gas Field10 connected to Sarawak via a pipeline that lies less than thirty kilometers from Luconia Breakers (described below).11

Nearly the entirety of the reef complex is completely submerged, ranging from depths between five to forty meters. The only exception is Luconia Breakers (Hempasan Bentin), a part of the shoals which according to a geographical survey published in the mid-1990s is the only feature to “dry,” meaning that it is partially exposed at low tide.12 This description is used by other current, authoritative publications.13 Such a feature is referred to under international law as a “low tide elevation.”

In addition to those of CCG 1123, Shahidan provided pictures taken from the surveillance flight depicting what must be assumed to be Luconia Breakers (given that it is the only feature in South Luconia not permanently submerged). The feature in the photograph is clearly above water, and includes a sedimentary deposit on top resembling dried sand or crushed coral. Curiously, Shahidan stated at the June 2 press conference that Luconia Breakers had recently “become a small island,”14 which he thought might explain the possible intent behind the intrusions. Similar comments were made by other Malaysian officials to the author during recent field research, implying that there had been a change in the status of the feature.15 Given the ongoing large-scale reclamation activities being conducted by China in the Spratlys, such comments are particularly intriguing.

Available documentary evidence suggests that Luconia Breakers was likely reclaimed into an artificial island sometime prior to 2009. An expedition made by a group of Chinese media to the feature in May 2009 provides strong evidence that at that particular point in time the feature had already been reclaimed, and was permanently above water, including at high tide.16 Given the lack of probability of such rapid change in elevation occurring naturally within such a short amount of time, the feature has to have been reclaimed.17 According to some experts, the unusually flat surface and highly linear edges of the dried sediment visible in pictures from the Chinese expedition may also indicate reclamation had been undertaken at some point prior to the date the photographs were taken.

Given that there were no reports of any regular, official Chinese presence around South Luconia Shoals before 2012 (more detail in the following section), it seems that at least this initial reclamation is unlikely to have been undertaken by China. Malaysia has previously conducted reclamation activities at features it claims in the Spratlys, including at Swallow Reef (Pulau Layang Layang), and may have decided to undertake smaller scale reclamation at Luconia Breakers. Since even authoritative publications have noted no change in the status of the feature, any reclamation would have been conducted without the ‘due notice’ required by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).18

Other statements made by Shahidan suggest that Malaysia does not consider this feature (or any part of the South Luconia Shoals) to be subject to a dispute with China. Once again using the word for island, in his post on Facebook the minister stated that “this little island has no overlapping claims” (pulau kecil ini bukanlah tuntutan bertindih). Yet, China clearly believes it has a claim to the entirety of South Luconia Shoals, which was included in the initial list of features in the South China Sea published by the Republican government in 1935.19 The reported Chinese presence at the reef clearly indicates that China continues to maintain this claim to South Luconia Shoals, including Luconia Breakers, whether or not such a claim has any foundation in international law.

This is why the status of the feature is so important. If Luconia Breakers was originally a low tide elevation, as most publications agree, and has been subsequently reclaimed as an artificial island, then China has no legal basis to claim sovereignty over the feature. Under international law, including that embodied in UNCLOS, a state cannot claim sovereign possession over a low tide elevation,20 and the right to reclaim or create artificial islands out of such features falls to the coastal state on whose continental shelf it lies.21 In this case, the right is Malaysia’s. This was the conclusion reached by a recent study undertaken by eminent US legal scholar Ashley Roach, who argued that none of the features at South Luconia Shoals were subject to appropriation. According to Roach, they are in effect an extension of the Malaysian continental shelf, and, therefore, “Malaysia clearly has sovereign rights over them.”22 This would include the right to reclaim the feature into an artificial island if Malaysia so decided. And yet, despite the fairly clear legal grounds for Malaysia arguing there is no dispute over this feature, the actions of the CCG indicate that China clearly disagrees and regards the feature as its own sovereign territory.

Chinese “Intrusions” and the Malaysian Response at Sea

While the June 2 press conference was the first to be held by a member of the cabinet in response to China’s growing presence in areas including South Luconia Shoals, this is not the first time such incursions have been discussed publicly by Malaysian officials. Shahidan has testified before the Malaysian Parliament on several occasions, including on March 20, 2014 where he stated that since 2013 there had been a marked increase in “intrusions” in the area, as well as around James Shoal.23 According to Shahidan, during 2013 alone there had been 7 intrusions by 16 assets of the PLA-Navy (PLAN) and CCG.

This increase in Chinese assets was not new, and had been occurring in similar numbers around the Spratly Islands since 2008. According to one Malaysian security analyst, this had included the presence of as many as 35 assets from the CCG as well as the PLAN in that area between 2008 and 2012.24 What was new, beginning in roughly 2012, was that Chinese maritime paramilitary assets had begun operating further away from the Spratlys and much closer to the coast of Sarawak, including in areas such as South Luconia Shoals. In August 2012, two vessels from what was formerly China Marine Surveillance (now part of CCG) “came in contact with Malaysian owned survey vessels operating off James Shoal and North Luconia Shoals.”25 By January 2013, similar incidents had occurred “involving Chinese ships and a Shell contracted survey vessel” in areas proximate to South Luconia Shoals.

Prior to 2012, the Chinese presence seems to have remained primarily focused around the Spratlys; by 2013, it was clear that the CCG, in particular, had shifted strongly to the southwest. Concern began to grow as the Malaysian government struggled to find an appropriate response. The Chinese patrols had by October of that year “set off alarm bells among senior Malaysian officials,” and US intelligence assessments had reportedly begun referring to the South Luconia Shoals as a “new regional challenge.”26 The concern noted in these reports is evident in the parliamentary testimony of senior Malaysian officials, including Shahidan.

In the same testimony given in March 2014, Shahidan outlined the emerging response to the new intrusions that had been occurring since the previous year. Malaysian navy, air force and coast guard assets, he stated, regularly carried out “patrols” (rondaan) and “maritime surveillance” (pengawasan maritim) in these areas of the South China Sea.27 This has been the predominant operational response to the growing Chinese presence in the waters off Sabah and Sarawak—to surveil and monitor but not to directly confront. It is, thus, difficult to see any substantial shift or unusual “assertiveness” in the minister’s recommendation to deploy RMN and MMEA vessels to monitor the Chinese intrusion.

Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Bakri testified in March 2015 that surveillance remained the primary operational response, and noted a recent shift in Malaysia’s defense posture in order to facilitate such activities. He said that Malaysia had recently strengthened its defense posture in Sabah and Labuan because “we want to increase surveillance in the South China Sea” (kita ingin mempertingkatkan pengawasan di kawasan Laut China Selatan).28 This shift in defense posture was undertaken to provide ships for the MMEA and navy to “constantly monitor” (memantau sentiasa) several important “hotspots,” which he specifically mentioned included South Luconia Shoals. The ultimate strategic aim of this shift in defense posture was, according to the deputy minister, “to create a deterrent” (mewujudkan suasana deterrent). Constantly monitoring “hotspots” such as South Luconia Shoals has, however, failed to deter encroachment into these areas. As a result of the policy favoring surveillance over confrontation, Malaysia’s maritime security services have only been able to watch over the last several years as what might at one point have best been termed “intrusions” have become a permanent Chinese presence.

The permanence of this presence was hinted at by the local news coverage of the press conference, which reported that the CCG vessel spotted during the patrol “had been anchored in the area for about two years.”29 Any basic knowledge of coast guard deployment periods and patterns would caution against a literal interpretation of this understanding, yet field research undertaken by the author in Malaysia during 2015 corroborates the recent establishment of what is in effect a permanent Chinese presence there.30 To reinforce this fact, satellite imagery from February 2015 shows the previously unannounced presence of a much larger CCG vessel of the 4,000 ton “3401 class” stationed 3.5 kilometers (km) from Luconia Breakers at that time.31 As would be expected based on the official testimony discussed above, anchored 2.7 km northwest of the vessel is a RMN Kedah class offshore patrol vessel (OPV).

The reality of the Chinese presence should come as no surprise to the Malaysian leadership. In contrast to Malaysia’s quieter approach, Chinese officials have been clear about their intention to not only claim but to actively enforce their jurisdiction over South Luconia Shoals. According to Liu Cigui, the former director of China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA), regular patrols of South Luconia Shoals (Beikang Ansha in Mandarin) began in August 2013 and were subsequently “reinforced” in 2014.32 Liu’s replacement as SOA director, Wang Hong, stated in early 2015 that these plans were executed by what had at that point become the CCG. Furthermore, he noted that SOA’s operational plans for 2015 included the intention to “enhance law enforcement over uninhabited islands.”33

Though he did not mention South Luconia Shoals by name, recent reports in Chinese media sources state that this objective has been achieved there from April 2015, arguing that the feature has been “effectively under China’s control” since that time. 34 Such claims are highly questionable from the standpoint of both operational facts as well as international law, and would obviously be disputed by Malaysia. Yet, they do capture a new operational reality—permanent and persistent Chinese efforts to enforce its jurisdiction and authority in what amounts to Malaysia’s EEZ and continental shelf extending into the South China Sea from Borneo.

While the civilian leadership has been slow to recognize this new operational reality out at sea, Malaysia has quietly entered into its own “Scarborough Shoal” model standoff with Beijing since at least February 2015, if not earlier. Malaysia has just refused to recognize it as such. But as the close proximity noted by Shahidan shows, once again, Chinese vessels are facing down another neighbor in the South China Sea.

A New Confrontation

To get a better sense of what this standoff looks like at the operational level, it is possible to read between the lines from Shahidan’s press conference. In addition to deploying surveillance patrols to keep tabs on the CCG ship, he had convened a meeting with the National Security Council “with regards to the security of the South China Sea and the movement of illegal foreign fishermen there.”35 The latter part of the statement is particularly significant, since according to the minister, Malaysia would “take action against illegal foreign fishing boats that encroached on our waters.”

As has been the case with other countries such as Indonesia in the South China Sea, the minister is trying to communicate Malaysian resolve to arrest foreign fishermen viewed as operating illegally in these areas. As in the case of Indonesia, it suggests that such attempts may have met with intervention and the possible use of coercive measures by the CCG.36 Reports coming out of the Chinese press suggest this is a distinct possibility, stating that a “confrontation” with Malaysian security vessels had occurred recently in the vicinity of Luconia Breakers.37 This suggests that there have been incidents involving the CCG preventing MMEA vessels from enforcing their jurisdiction over Chinese fishermen operating illegally in the area. Interviews separately indicate that such incidents have occurred in the past at this feature, including one that occurred during the latter part of 2014.38 If accurate, the picture painted of the current confrontation is highly reminscent of that in 2012 at Scarborough Shoal, which also arose from intervention by Chinese agencies in Phiippine attempts to enforce their jurisdiction over Chinese fishermen operating illegally in disputed areas, resulting in a standoff at sea.

In not directly stating this, the minister was trying to walk a fine line between signaling Malaysian resolve and stepping too far outside the confines of “quiet diplomacy.” Statements from Chinese officials indicating their own intent suggest that such operations will, nevertheless, continue. While MMEA vessels from the Sabah command have been assisting with law enforcement efforts in these areas, the force will require more assets in order to meet this challenge.39 Yet, meeting the challenge is not solely a question of resources. It will also require more difficult strategic decisions and increased operational planning surrounding “grey zone” contingencies with Chinese forces in these areas, something that is almost non-existent at present in Malaysia.

Comments by Malaysian officials, including more recent testimony before Parliament by Shahidan, suggest that they are not adequately assessing this challenge and believe that responses to the two issues of illegal fishing and military or paramilitary “intrusion” can be neatly compartmentalized. In testimony on March 26, 2015, Shahidan stated that “foreign military assets” (aset tentera asing) operating at South Luconia would be handled diplomatically, while illegal fishermen will not be tolerated and would be arrested.40 But what if the CCG or a “foreign military asset” actively prevents the arrest of the fishermen? The minister provides no answer to this question. The comments also indicate a level of confidence at that point in time in dealing with Chinese “intrusions” through diplomatic channels. This emphasis on protesting incursions through “quiet diplomacy” has been a central pillar of Malaysia’s response until recently, and is largely a product of a widely shared belief in the existence of a “special relationship” with China.

Protest and the “Special Relationship”

Malaysia’s current response is, to put it simply, not working. There are no indications that CCG vessel 1123 has departed from the area or that it intends to leave anytime in the near future. Statements by Chinese officials indicate a clear intention to remain there indefinitely, either with one ship or more regularly patrolling the area. Protests conducted to date through backchannel diplomacy have been operationally ineffective, and have not resulted in a change in Chinese behavior. The persistence of this approach has resulted primarily from a perception among policymakers that a “special relationship” exists with China, whereby Malaysia is treated differently from its neighbors.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not this perception was in the past a valid one, shifting geostrategic circumstances are rendering it increasingly untenable. Where China once seemingly permitted Malaysia to conduct exploratory surveys and even offshore drilling operations for oil and gas in disputed areas,41 now CCG ships regularly interfere with and harass similar undertakings. This development raises a troubling possibility for the Malaysian leadership—what if China had never, in fact, permitted such activities, and had merely lacked the means to effectively enforce its will? What if the “special relationship” was little more than a function of geographical distance and a lack of power projection capability?

Malaysia is no longer the beneficiary of the strategic buffer its geographical distance from China had previously provided. Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at a prominent Malaysian think tank, has recently spoken of a “new reality,” whereby China’s current reclamation activities in the South China Sea “will inevitably bring the operations of Chinese and Malaysian maritime forces into ever closer proximity.”42 This “new reality” is creating ever greater strain on the relationship and is likely to erode any “special relationship” Malaysia may have had with China. Yet, a great deal of faith is still placed in its existence by policymakers. This is evident in Shahidan’s statement at the press conference that part of the response would be to file an official protest with Beijing. Malaysia has been filing such protests with Beijing for the last several years, to no avail.

In a later interview, Shahidan specified that this protest would be delivered by Najib directly to Xi Jinping.43 As this action would indicate, the prime minister is himself one of the foremost proponents of the special relationship, believing in a reservoir of goodwill that remains following his father’s opening of relations with China in 1974. According to Najib, Xi personally thanked him for Malaysia’s “quiet diplomacy” approach to the South China Sea during a visit Najib made to China in November 2014, noting that it was the “best method” as it “stressed discussion rather than confrontation.”44

It is not immediately clear if previous protests had occurred at this level, but the expectation of “special” treatment continues to remain the ballast in an increasingly troubled relationship. The fact that the press conference was held, however, indicates that doubt is emerging at least within parts of the cabinet about the nature of the relationship.

Early indications suggest that there is good reason for doubt, and that even direct protest at the senior-most levels of leadership are unlikely to elicit the desired results. In fact, there may, in the end, be no protest at all. Several days after making his statement regarding a direct protest from Najib, Shahidan retracted it, saying that there would be no meeting between the two leaders, only that any intrusions would elicit diplomatic protests.45 On June 11, Chinese ambassador in Kuala Lumpur Huang Huikang said that he had received no protest note through diplomatic channels. He played down the confrontation, stating that it was “normal practice” for CCG vessels to operate in these areas.46

Given these developments, the MMEA and RMN have simply been left to look on and observe what the Chinese consider to be the “normal practice” of their ships operating at South Luconia Shoals. With the emergence of a permanent Chinese coast guard presence off its shores and a standoff reminiscent of others in the South China Sea, such as that at Scarborough Shoal, the question arises—what is so “special” about Malaysia’s relationship with China? The answer, it would seem, is not all that much anymore.

ASEAN and Malaysia’s Broader Response

No longer able to rely on direct channels of communication with Beijing, Malaysia is likely to have to turn increasingly to bilateral and multilateral relationships in the region. These have previously formed an important part of Malaysia’s broader strategic response to a rising China, yet were ultimately secondary to the primary emphasis on protest and maritime surveillance. The primary multilateral instrument has centered on Malaysia’s membership and involvement in ASEAN. According to one recent analysis of Malaysia’s broader response in the South China Sea, in addition to private or backchannel diplomacy, it has continued to work through ASEAN, both publicly and privately, to advance its interests there. The author of the report noted that since 2012 a newfound sense of urgency had emerged in Malaysia for bringing “to a speedy conclusion” negotiations over a binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. 47

This sense of urgency continues to pervade comments by Najib,48 as well as Minister of Defense Hishamuddin Hussein,49 reiterating the importance of achieving this goal as part of Malaysia’s wider diplomatic strategy. Yet, the negotiations have effectively stalled, and there is little cause for optimism that should such an agreement eventually be reached, itself an unlikely prospect, that the substance of the agreement would serve to effectively constrain Chinese behavior.,As ASEAN chair in 2015, Malaysia might be expected to “play a strong diplomatic role behind the scenes in encouraging China to be more forthcoming” on the negotiations,50 but there has as of yet been little public indication that such efforts have borne fruit. A more effective utilization of backchannel diplomacy might be to intensify Malaysia’s discussions with other ASEAN claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which would enable them to achieve common ground from which to more effectively approach China in the negotiations. These sorts of discussions began in 2014 but are reported to be at “a very preliminary stage.”51

China’s preference to handle these issues bilaterally is already challenging the ability of ASEAN to maintain a coherent and unified front on the South China Sea, a development which was clearly on display in 2012 during Cambodia’s chairmanship. Similar to protests or direct surveillance at sea, ASEAN is unlikely to prove an effective deterrent to Chinese behavior. As a result, Malaysia is likely to have to place greater emphasis on its security and defense arrangements outside of ASEAN, including through the Five Powers Defense Arrangement (FPDA) with countries such as Australia and through its bilateral relationship with the United States.

These relationships do not have to be mutually exclusive from each other or from ASEAN, and could actually be leveraged to strengthen ASEAN solidarity, and ultimately deterrent power within the organization. They are already being brought into greater synergy with ASEAN wide initiatives such as ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting (ADMM) plus and others. Future emphasis should be placed on building more serious security cooperation within ASEAN, including among smaller subsets of its members outside the formal organizational arrangements.

This already occurs through FPDA or US-led exercises with Malaysian forces and in the future might include ASEAN partners such as Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, or even Japan (all of whom are facing similar challenges). These exercises might begin to simulate relevant operational scenarios existing in the “grey zone” between traditional and non-traditional security at sea, specifically those dealing with fisheries or law enforcement issues. This would send a strong message, while also improving the operational capacity of the relevant Malaysian maritime security organizations, as well as that of their ASEAN partners.


Amidst increasing concern over China’s activities in portions of the South China Sea off Sarawak, we may be seeing the first move towards a more effective and appropriate response from Malaysia. But it is at best only that, a beginning, and it is not even all that clear yet it has actually begun. In and of itself, Malaysia’s current response is likely to prove neither “firm” nor “assertive” enough to change Beijing’s calculus. The current response actually differs very little from Malaysia’s previous responses, and is more emblematic of a deficit of strategic thinking about alternative approaches than it is of any wider shift in the country’s approach at present.

Whether or not its leadership wants to recognize it, Malaysia is already in the midst of a continuous and persistent confrontation with Chinese forces off the South Luconia Shoals. The similarities between this new reality and the old one to which Vietnam and the Philippines have long become accustomed raise grave doubts about the existence of a “special relationship” between Malaysia and China, the crumbling façade of which will inevitably have to be replaced with a new overarching strategic framework. What that framework will look like is for the prime minister and his cabinet to decide, but the need for decisive action has now become increasingly apparent.

The confrontation at South Luconia Shoals, in combination with other incidents occurring in the area as well as off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna islands, clearly demonstrates the full extent of China’s expansionist claims in the South China Sea. Furthermore, China is now for the first time in history not only clearly claiming the entirety of the nine-dash line, but is actively attempting to enforce its expansive claims within that area. The enforcement of these claims represents a clear and persistent threat to peace and stability in the region, as well as to the current international maritime order. Malaysia is now in danger of suffering a similar fate to that of the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal, and this problem is not Malaysia’s alone.

If it did, in fact, undertake reclamation activities at Luconia Breakers, Malaysia should declare so publicly and assert its right to do so under international law. It should further repeat that it does not recognize China’s claims to this feature and detail the legal rationale for this position. Such a rationale could include the inability of states to claim sovereignty over submerged features or low tide elevations. To do so would be in keeping with its commitments under UNCLOS and would prevent China from claiming in the future that Luconia Breakers had emerged naturally; therefore making it subject to a dispute over sovereignty.

Australia and the United States should both encourage and support Malaysia in doing so. This should be done in maintenance of the two countries’ principled positions regarding the South China Sea. They would not be taking a position over sovereignty, but clarifying that claims to maritime areas must originate from legitimate land-based features. This position would support and reinforce Malaysia’s, emphasizing the line that has already been drawn around international legal principles and the maritime order at sea. It is time to draw the line more clearly, not in the sand but on the water.


1. Post on Shahidan Kassim’s Facebook page, June 2, 2015,

2. Jenifer Laeng, “Chinese Coast Guard Vessel Found at S Luconia Shoals,” Borneo Post Online, June 3, 2015,

3. Prasanth Parameswaran, “Malaysia Responds to China’s South China Sea Intrusion,” The Diplomat, June 9, 2015,

4. Jason Ng and Trefor Moss, “Malaysia Toughens Stance with Beijing Over South China Sea,” The Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2015,

5. Ridzwan Rahmat, “Malaysia Dispatches Missile Corvette to Monitor Chinese Coast Guard ‘Intrusion,’” Jane’s Defence Weekly, June 11, 2015.

6. Oh Ei Sun, “South China Sea Disputes: KL’s Subtle Shift?” RSIS Commentary, no. 142, (June 19, 2015): 1.

7. Ashley Roach, “Malaysia and Brunei: An Analysis of Their Claims in the South China Sea,” Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), August 2014, 14,

8. D. J. Hancox and Victor Prescott, A Geographical Description of the Spratly Islands and an Account of Hydrographic Surveys Amongst Those Islands (IBRU Maritime Briefing, 1995), 21.

9. Shahidan Kassim’s Facebook page,

10. US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), Publication 163, Sailing Directions Enroute: Borneo, Jawa, Sulawesi and Nusa Tengarra, Thirteenth Edition, 2015, 330.

11. Victor Robert Lee, “South China Sea: Satellite Images Show Pace of China’s Subi Reef Reclamation,” The Diplomat, June 19, 2015,

12. Hancox and Prescott, A Geographical Description, 21.

13. NGA, Publication 163, 330.

14. Laeng, “Chinese Coast Guard Vessel Found at S Luconia Shoals.”

15. Interviews conducted by author in Malaysia, March 2015.

16. “Luconia Breakers: China’s New Southernmost Territory in the South China Sea?” South Sea Conversations Blog, June 16, 2015,

17. The natural emergence of new islands can occur rapidly, as was the case with an island off the coast of Gwadar, Pakistan in 2013 and Japan’s Niijima in 2014. Such rapid natural development is, however, almost always associated with a dramatic geomorphologic event, such as volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. No such events have occurred in the area surrounding South Luconia Shoals, suggesting that it is highly unlikely that the island emerged naturally. See “Japan’s Newest Island is Now Eight Times Bigger,” National Geographic, January 4, 2014,

18. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Article 80 (3) requires that: “Due notice must be given of the construction of such artificial islands, installations or structures, and permanent means for giving warning of their presence must be maintained.”

19. Private correspondence with Bill Hayton. As was the case with the features claimed at that time in the Spratlys, China had never actually surveyed South Luconia Shoal and simply translated or transliterated the names of the features from Western nautical charts. For more on this see Bill Hayton, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 54.

20. I.C.J. Reports, Nicaragua V. Columbia, Judgments, I.C.J. Reports 2012, paragraph 26.

21. UNCLOS, art. 80.

22. Roach, “Malaysia and Brunei,” 31.

23. Minister Shahidan Kassim, Testimony before House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat) (March 20, 2014), “Register of Official Statements” (Senarai Penyata Rasmi), commonly referred to as the “Hansard,” 21-22.

24. Sumathy Permal, “The Rising Turbulence in the South China Sea,” MIMA Sea Views, no. 3 (April 15, 2013), 3.

25. Permal, “The Rising Turbulence in the South China Sea,” 3.

26. Bill Gertz, “Inside the Ring: Shutdown slows down Obama’s pivot to Asia,” Washington Times, October 2, 2013,

27. Shahidan Kassim, Testimony (March 20, 2014), 21.

28. Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Bakri, Testimony before House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat) (March 23, 2015), “Register of Official Statements” (Senarai Penyata Rasmi), 154.

29. Laeng, “Chinese Coast Guard Vessel Found at S Luconia Shoals.”

30. Interviews conducted in Malaysia by the author, March 2015.

31. Lee, “South China Sea: Satellite Images Show Pace of China’s Subi Reef Reclamation.”

32. “Maritime Official Details China’s 2013 Patrols,” People’s Daily, January 16, 2014,

33. “SOA Details 2014 Diaoyu Islands Patrols,” Global Times, February 9, 2015.

34. “China Now Tussling With Malaysia in the South China Sea,” Want China Times, June 5, 2015,

35. Laeng, “Chinese Coast Guard Vessel Found at S Luconia Shoals.”

36. Scott Bentley, “Mapping the Nine Dash Line: Recent Incidents Involving Indonesia in the South China Sea,” Strategist, October 29, 2013,

37. “China Now Tussling With Malaysia in the South China Sea,” June 5, 2015.

38. Interviews conducted in Malaysia by the author, March 2014. The precise timing of these incidents could not be immediately confirmed.

39. Interviews conducted in Malaysia by the author, March 2014.

40. Minister Shahidan Kassim, Testimony before House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat) (March 26, 2015), “Register of Official Statements” (Senarai Penyata Rasmi), 111

41. Prashanth Parameswaran, “Playing it Safe: Malaysia’s Approach to the South China Sea and Implications for the United States,” Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Maritime Strategy Series (February 2015): 4.

42. Shahriman Lockman, “The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and China-Malaysia Relations,” (speech, Dialogue on China-Malaysia Relations: Strengthening Partnership, Deepening Regional Cooperation, International Conference Hall, Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA), Tuesday, April 14, 2015),

43. Ng and Moss, “Malaysia Toughens Stance with Beijing Over South China Sea.”

44. “Chinese President Praises Malaysia’s Quiet Diplomacy on South China Sea Issues,” BERNAMA, November 11, 2014.

45. “Shahidan: No Meeting Between Najib and Chinese Premier Planned,” The Star Online, June 9, 2015,

46. Melissa Goh, “Malaysia Urged to Toughen Stance Over China Vessels in Disputed Sea,” Channel News Asia, June 11, 2015,

47. Parameswaran, “Playing it Safe,” 6.

48. Bernama deputy editor-in-chief Mokhtar Hussain, et. al, “Transcript of Interview with Najib on the 26th ASEAN Summit,” April 23, 2015,

49. Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, “Preventing Conflict Escalation” (speech before 14th Shangri-La Dialogue, May 30, 2015), 4.

50. Carlyle Thayer, “Malaysia as ASEAN Chair,” Background Briefing, Thayer Consultancy, Feburary 9, 2015, 1.

51. Parameswaran, “Playing it Safe,” 7.