Like The Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, Malaysia claims a dozen of islands in the disputed South China Sea but unlike its peers, Najib's administration has stayed largely silent on the mainland's aggressive expansion in the area.
Manila under its previous leadership launched a legal case in The Hague to support its assertions, Vietnam has installed rocket launchers on its five bases in the area and even Taiwan, whose voice is often drowned out by Beijing, "ruled out the possibility of any active cooperation with China" on the issue, the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei said in a report last month.
Kuala Lumpur's response, on the other hand, has been muted.
According to Reuters, Najib's government ignored reports of Malaysian fishermen being bullied by men aboard Chinese Coast Guard vessels last year. "When the Chinese entered Indonesia's waters, they were immediately chased out. When the Chinese vessels entered our waters, nothing was done," an unnamed Malaysian minister told Reuters in June.
In March, Minister Shahidan Kassim said that about 100 Chinese registered vessels were detected in the Luconia Shoals, one of the largest reefs in the South China Sea. But a few days later, then-defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein refuted those claims, in an indication of the government's policy confusion.
Strategists agreed that Najib was unlikely to press Beijing on the matter for fear of angering his country's largest trade partner. But Najib's silence on the South China Sea could then be used as fodder by angry Malaysians seeking the PM's exit over the 1MDB episode.
"One interesting question to come out of this is how ardent Malays feel about being in hock to China," William Case, professor at City University Hong Kong, remarked in an email.
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