In April, reports emerged of a “stand-off” in the South China Sea between the West Capella, an exploration ship hired by Malaysian national oil firm Petronas, and the Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese government survey vessel. The incident on April 17 also involved Vietnamese ships tagging the West Capella, as the waters in which the ship was operating are also claimed by Vietnam – although this fact was not as well highlighted in some reports. Three days later, the US Navy dispatched two warships to the area, joined by an Australian Navy vessel, in an apparent move to bolster Malaysia . The US maintained a presence in the area for weeks, with the deployment seen by analysts as showing US commitment to international law and to its “allies and partners” in Southeast Asia . The episode ended when the West Capella left after completing its work on May 12. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 left three days later. Malaysia’s reaction to the dispatching of the uninvited US warships, however, was ambivalent at the least, and unwelcoming at the most. Chinese ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 seen near Malaysia’s South China Sea waters After first denying there was a stand-off, Foreign Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on April 22 said in a statement that Malaysia “must avoid unintended, accidental incidents in these waters”. “While international law guarantees the freedom of navigation, the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region,” he said. Hishammuddin also reiterated Malaysia’s stance that “any dispute should be resolved amicably through peaceful means, diplomacy and mutual trust by all the concerned parties”, and stressed that the country had “open and continuous communication with all relevant parties, including the People’s Republic of China and the United States ”. It was a clear sign that Malaysia intended to defuse the situation. It is worth noting that the “warships” and “vessels” mentioned in the statement referred to both US Navy and China Coast Guard ships. By raising the escalatory implications of the presence of these vessels, the statement brought to mind the message articulated by the previous prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad , about “warship attracting warship”. The pointed mention of both the US and China at the end of the statement reinforced Malaysia’s long-standing stance of neutrality and non-alignment. So far, there are few signs that the new Perikatan Nasional coalition government, which came into power in a highly controversial manner in March, will deviate from the past traditions of Malaysia’s foreign policy. Why Indonesia invokes the Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration win Hishammuddin’s statement did not impress certain quarters. Maritime security expert Euan Graham, who is based in Singapore’s Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS), noted that Malaysia’s apparently unappreciative message to the US “did not go down well in Washington”. He added that some officers within the Royal Malaysian Navy would prefer a strengthening of US-Malaysia defence partnership and by implications, a greater resolve from the civilian leadership to act tough on China. Blake Herzinger, another security analyst, suggested that the US should learn from the incident how to communicate and coordinate better with Malaysia, in particular the professional military establishment. Indeed, Chinese assertive actions in the South China Sea have generated strong resentment within Malaysia’s defence establishment and strategic studies circle, and even the wider Malaysian public. Although Chinese analysts and officials view Beijing’s actions as a reaction to Malaysia’s drilling operations in a disputed area, most of their Malaysian counterparts question the legitimacy of China’s claims and perceive Beijing’s actions as intruding into Malaysian maritime zones. Unsurprisingly, many of them do prefer to see a closer military partnership between the US and Malaysia, to deter China. But Malaysian civilian political leadership, across different administrations, have consistently displayed far more cautiousness. They continue to play down Malaysia’s differences with China and are wary to draw Malaysia strategically too close to the US. South China Sea: US urges UN to reject China’s claims A popular conventional explanation is that China’s economic hold on Malaysia has greatly dis-incentivised Malaysian leaders to speak louder and made them “tepid”. Another view is that Malaysia’s muted response, based on “selective alignment”, has been exactly working fine as it quietly allows a stronger response to China’s assertiveness from more powerful countries while avoiding confrontation with China on its own. Beyond these explanations, however, is the real and acute anxiety of being entrapped in a new Cold War as US-China relations became tenser by the day. While Malaysia has its own unhappiness with Beijing in the South China Sea, by and large it does not see China as an existential threat, systemic adversary, ideological rival, revisionist hegemon, or any of similar sorts. Malaysia’s political leaders, no matter their background, generally see it is not in the country’s interest to be enlisted into an epic new Cold War between “free and repressive visions of the world order”. A mishandling of the dispute will force Malaysia into a bigger fight with China that does not necessarily serve Malaysia’s interests. Asean stays on the sidelines as South China Sea tensions mount Hence, in the South China Sea, while Malaysia is worried about China’s assertiveness, it is also equally worried about the “growing rivalry and action-reaction between powerful nations” that “have raised the risk of regional polarisation”, as the newly released Malaysia’s Defence White Paper put it. To disentangle Malaysia’s specific dispute with China from the generalised, broader geopolitical struggle emerging on the horizon, a calm and cautious handling of the issue is needed over quick judgments and emotional reactions. Viewed in this light, Hishammudin’s statement made perfect sense. Apart from defusing the tension, it was also an exercise in perception management, aimed at the Chinese audience, to distance Malaysia from an uninvited US naval deployment, lest that Malaysia was seen as having decided to join up with the US’ confrontational stance against China. It did not want to make the “stand-off” into a bigger situation than what it actually was. Moreover, if Malaysia were not careful, it could walk right into a “fait accompli” making of a deeper defence partnership that the US naval deployment could have created but which the Malaysian civilian leadership was not ready to embrace. US-China tensions in South China Sea fuelled by increase in military operations However, Malaysia’s strategic dilemma is not going away. It wishes to manage the South China Sea dispute with China with a credible deterrence (in which the US could help), but does not want to be drawn into the strategic rivalry between the US and China. Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea will generate more constituencies in Malaysia advocating for a stronger defence partnership or even quasi-alliance with the US, but the US’ overall determination to wage a new Cold War with China will also continue to make Malaysian leaders more hesitant than ever to embrace such a partnership or alliance. Managing such a delicate balance is increasingly more difficult, which is also complicated by the rising public scrutiny in the age of social media, coupled with nationalist sentiments. Malaysia’s effort to manage this balance and dilemma should be understood, and not pushed around, ostracised, exploited and manipulated by others for their own advantages. Dr Ngeow Chow-Bing is director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya. This piece was first published by the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, affiliated with Peking University.