'Mahathir Doctrine': Avoiding Conflicts in the South China Sea

Dr Muhammad Danial bin Azman (Department of International and Strategic Studies. Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Malaya)


Tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) have become a major concern for Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, due to the presence of Chinese and United States warships there. There is fear that the situation may lead to a major war the Asia Pacific. The presence of warships certainly disturbs the current security and stability framework in the region. Security in the region has in fact been grounded in the concept of Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) since 1971. Arguably, the present situation signals the failure of ZOPFAN in protecting the interests of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) since both China and the US are using the SCS as a contested field. In so doing, ASEAN’s intention of remaining neutral is being ignored.

Known for his Look East Policy (LEP), Mahathir had always maintained an equal-distance approach in asserting Malaysia’s foreign policy. The failure of the prime ministers who succeeded him after he first retired in 2003 in maintaining the equilibrium of balance of power between the East and West, and their allowing of high dependency by Malaysia on China’s economy, have left Malaysia’s political economy exposed when dealing with competing narratives from both the US and China. Hence, Mahathir, now back in power, needs to lessen Malaysia’s economic dependency on China through the involvement of other states, especially Japan, without leaning towards the West. Such a framework would certainly allow Malaysia to avoid involvement in the ongoing US-China contest. As often stated by Mahathir in many of his press statements, ‘better not to have warships, both in Malaysian waters, as well as in the South China Sea’ (The Star, June 19, 2018). This so called ‘Mahathir Doctrine’ is embodied very well in Gidden Rose’s Neoclassical Realism, the State and Foreign Policy (2009). Adjusting Malaysia’s position to the new geopolitical landscape regionally and internationally has become the main tenet in Mahathir’s foreign policy. In the face of inauspicious issues threatening the country’s national security, Mahathir is trying to integrate both external and internal variables, as proposed by Rose (1998).


Avoid or Join the Contest?

China’s expansionist tendencies in the SCS are a reality, and have changed the geostrategic and political structure of the region, further renewing and augmenting a Cold War-like atmosphere of suspicion and security threat. Every state including the US should accept China’s expansionism in the SCS and realise that Beijing’s actions cannot be overcome in a blink of eye. Accepting this fact will help neighbouring states plan and redefine their foreign policy orientation with China and the US. Small states such as Malaysia can then enjoy the benefits of their relations with superpowers in their domestic economic development, as well as their status in international politics. As things are now, such states are forced to redefine their national interests within and outside the region, in order to maintain good relations with both China and the US. For Malaysia, caution must be the key, and international relations must be confined to external affairs only, and the country should not gamble with internal developments which at the moment are governed by a fragile new government. Mahathir is clear about wanting Malaysia-China relations to merely be about economic growth, and not to be about internal affairs.

Malaysia now needs to diversify its national interest/foreign policy in the region, as well as in international politics. More importantly, Malaysia should strive to be part of as many economic blocks as possible. Good governance is needed to guide this process. Furthermore, Malaysia should pursue a comprehensive defence and security strategy that covers all aspects of national development through a framework of international security typology covering: supply security, market access security, finance-credit security, techno-industrial capability security, socio-economic paradigm security, trans-border community security, systemic security and alliance security. By practising such an inclusive strategy, Malaysia will be better prepared in defending it domestically and internationally. I

n order to avoid confrontation with China and the US, Malaysia’s various states should work in tandem with the federal government. Every one of them should use its diplomatic wisdom to recognise China’s ambitions in the SCS. China claims that it is being defensive, but often the reality shows that its actions are offensive tactics.

As China becomes ever more dynamic economically and assertive militarily, the awakening dragon slowly realigns itself in the international system to assert its role as a great power. China’s economic rise can benefit every state through Chinese FDI and China market access. In turn, what China desires is to be recognized in the international system as an equal power to the US.

The Mahathir Doctrine needs to include a rebranding of ASEAN centrality, especially where the SCS dispute is concerned.  ASEAN consists of smaller states, and history shows that such can become casualties in any superpower competition. Taking sides will not benefit ASEAN members. What will is the maintaining of a balance of relations with both China and the US. So under the Mahathir Doctrine, Malaysia is choosing to maintain an equal distance from these powers in times of crisis. Mahathir has persistently advocated that ASEAN should remain as one voice in encountering any uncertainties. ASEAN consensus will signal to both superpowers that intimidation will rarely succeed and will prove that positive collective regional soft power is beneficial in advancing member interests through the many multilateral frameworks (East Asian Summit, ASEAN Plus Three, ASEAN Regional Forum, and so on) accessible to the organisation.

The Mahathir Doctrine continues the view that ASEAN is a canopy for dealing with an assertive China over the SCS. ASEAN as a whole should use dialogue and diplomacy to ensure that Southeast Asia does not become a theatre of conflict.

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