This essay traces the structural sources of Malaysia's South China Sea policy. It argues that Malaysia's ‘light-hedging’ approach is primarily a smaller-state's response to growing systemic pressure arising from power asymmetry, rivalry, and uncertainties. The features of this approach are: an insistence on not taking sides, concurrent adoption of open deference and indirect defiance, and an active effort to cultivate a fallback position, all aimed at reducing multiple risks associated with the uncertainties of US commitment , China's long-term intentions, and their future relations. We have arrived at three main findings. First, structural impact matters: as geopolitical uncertainty increases, weaker states hedge more deeply. Second, smaller states do have agency, even if only in a low-profile manner. Because smaller states have been disadvantaged under an asymmetric power structure, they often use a combination of diplomatic, legal, developmental, and defence means to shape favourable external conditions. Third, while hedging is chiefly a result of structural factors, the forms and degree of a state's hedging activism are necessarily a function of its threat perceptions, elite interests and other unit-level variables. These factors explain Malaysia's light form of hedging: quiet action and limited defiance alongside open accommodation in managing the South China Sea disputes.
Cheng-Chwee Kuik (郭清水) is an Associate Professor and Head of the Centre for Asian Studies at the National University of Malaysia (UKM)’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), and concurrently a Nonresident Fellow at Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute (FPI). He is co-founder of the East Asian International Relations (EAIR) Caucus, a research platform for exchange, engagement, and empowerment among foreign affairs professionals in Malaysia. He served as Head of the Writing Team for the Government of Malaysia’s inaugural Defence White Paper (2020). Previously he was a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton-Harvard “China and the World” Program (CWP) and a visiting research fellow at Oxford's Department of Politics and International Relations.
Dr. Kuik’s research concentrates on weaker states’ foreign policy behavior, regional multilateralism, East Asian security, China-ASEAN relations, and Malaysia’s external policy. His publications have appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Journal of Contemporary China, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Chinese Journal of International Politics, Asian Security, China: An International Journal, Asian Politics and Policy, East Asian Policy, Shijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi, as well as edited books. He is co-author (with David M. Lampton and Selina Ho) of Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia (University of California Press, October 2020), and co-editor (with Alice Ba and Sueo Sudo) of Institutionalizing East Asia: Mapping and Reconfiguring Regional Cooperation (Routledge 2016). Dr. Kuik's essay, “The Essence of Hedging” was awarded the biennial 2009 Michael Leifer Memorial Prize by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies for the best article published in any of the three ISEAS journals.