Can the Mahathir Doctrine Ensure that the South China Sea Does Not Become a Theatre of Conflict?

Dr Rizal Abdul Kadir (Deputy Director-General, Maritime Institute of Malaysia; Adjunct Professor, National Defence University of Malaysia)


Of late, much has been said by commentators and in policy circles about a ‘Mahathir Doctrine’. But does such a doctrine exist and if so, how does the doctrine ensure that the South China Sea does not become a theatre of conflict. It was in mid-2018 that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad mooted deploying small patrol boats to keep peace in the South China Sea, and that the entire area should be free of battleships. This view has subsequently been echoed at various intervals by the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Prime Minister reasoned that battleships, by their very nature are a precursor to war; and what is therefore needed instead are small boats equipped to keep the seas safe and free from pirates. While pirates may not be the only subject of concern, one may surmise that in the mind of the Prime Minister, adequately equipped small patrol boats would be sufficient to address an array of non-traditional security issues. Many of these issues would be non-military in nature yet transnational in scope and reach; warranting States to work together to address common concerns in the South China Sea.

The above outlook certainly signals a more assertive stance. The views do not depart from the long-held position of Malaysia – indeed also by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself already in earlier days – that, fundamentally, what is required in the South China Sea is stability, peace, and prosperity; arguably, in that order.

In what way can the ‘Mahathir Doctrine’ help ensure that the South China Sea does not become a theatre of conflict? To answer this, one should first scrutinise relevant aspects of the statement made by Mahathir at the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, and juxtapose them with some of the long-held views of the Prime Minister concerning the South China Sea. Modalities may then be identified and employed to translate words into action.

A number of principles highlighted by the Prime Minister in the statement at the 73rd UNGA reignited a long-standing position of Malaysia on an array of issues: first, that Malaysia remains neutral and non-aligned; second, that Malaysia will seek mutual respect for mutual gain in any cooperative endeavor; third, the importance of the ‘prosper-thy-neighbour’ philosophy, its meaning elaborated by him in a speech delivered in 1998 at the 4th Pacific Dialogue when Malaysia was soldiering on amidst a period of bad economic performance by countries on the western rim the Pacific, and; fourth, a formula for reforming the Security Council. The Prime Minister has long advocated for a more equitable outlook on Security Council decisions. All said, the ‘Mahathir Doctrine’ may thus be described as a refined and more direct and assertive statement of long-standing principles upheld by Malaysia on matters impacting the international community—fairness and fair play through the rule of law in pursuit of peace, progress, and prosperity, with ASEAN playing a central role on matters concerning Southeast Asia.



The ‘Mahathir Doctrine’ as described above does have the ingredients necessary for ensuring that the South China Sea does not become a theatre of conflict, and exhibits a more refined and assertive outlook on matters Malaysia has championed since independence. There is continuity in its position on non-alignment, but there appears also to be a discernable change in the approach.

In short, the way forward to my mind is a contextualised adaptation of a combination of the following: agreement reached in the Caspian Sea[1]; the Ilulissat Declaration concerning the Arctic region; the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea; and principles from the Malaysia-Brunei commercial arrangement which saw both countries resolve their overlapping maritime claims.

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