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Land reclamation by China at Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Photo: AP

Malaysia must prepare navy for possible conflict in South China Sea, foreign minister warns

  • Saifuddin Abdullah says Kuala Lumpur’s ability to prevent other countries encroaching on its waters is lacking, and military upgrades are needed
  • Malaysia’s stance advocating non-militarisation of the disputed waterway is rhetorical only, analysts say, and there is ‘no substitute for tonnage at sea’

Malaysia’s navy needs upgrading to deal with the possibility of armed conflict in the South China Sea, the country’s foreign minister said on Thursday ahead of the long-awaited release of a Defence White Paper expected to outline a 10-year plan for the armed forces.

Saifuddin Abdullah spelled out in parliament how China’s coastguard vessels had a 24-hour presence around the South Luconia Shoals off the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo, adding that ships under the Royal Malaysian Navy “are smaller than the coastguard vessels from China”.

Despite not wanting conflict, Malaysian equipment had to be upgraded “so we are able to better manage our waters should there be a conflict between major powers in the South China Sea”, he said. Although Malaysia could issue protest notes if other nations encroached into its waters, the country’s lack of enforcement ability was a weak spot, the minister warned.

The Defence White Paper – Malaysia’s first – is expected to be tabled in early December, and will take stock of military assets as well as lay out Malaysia’s stand on various defence issues.

Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah. Photo: AP

Saifuddin’s remarks come just a month after the Pakatan Harapan government, which stormed to power last year in landmark national polls, unveiled a new guiding framework for foreign policy that proposed non-militarisation of the disputed waterway and turning it into a region of peace, friendship and trade.

Analysts agreed that Malaysia had an urgent need for new maritime patrol equipment, including aircraft – a requirement identified in the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s capability development plan that runs until 2055.

China, Malaysia seek to resolve South China Sea disputes with new dialogue mechanism

“Non-militarisation is, at best, a rhetorical stance. The major powers are not going to concede on this point. Ultimately, Malaysia needs to deal with the situation in the South China Sea as it is, not as it would like it to be. There is no substitute for tonnage at sea,” said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst in the Foreign Policy and Security Studies Programme at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

Among Malaysia’s latest naval purchases are a new class of four littoral mission ships built by the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. The first of these was delivered in China during April while another two are to be built and delivered in Malaysia by 2021.

Aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson. America is Southeast Asia’s dominant naval power. Photo: AP

The deal for these vessels was inked during the tenure of disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak, who is currently on trial for multiple counts of graft and abuse of power.

Although the Malaysian government had been more willing to issue protest notes on the South China Sea, the reality in the contested waters had not changed, Shahriman said. China has continued to maintain a presence near the Luconia Breakers off Sabah that Kuala Lumpur regards as within its exclusive economic zone, inside which Malaysia holds the sole rights to marine resources under international law. Beijing has also been more vigorous in protesting against Malaysia’s oil and gas activities in the area.

Malaysia looks to Chinese leadership, but not on South China Sea

Protest notes were often not made public to avoid “naming and shaming the other country”, said Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, but this raised questions about efficacy.

“Protest notes at least help to keep one’s claim alive, and serve as a record of official action undertaken to assert one’s claim. At least in Southeast Asia, such protest notes, even if issued, are often unpublicised ... for these reasons of maintaining stability and preventing inflammation of the situation. But that does lead to questions about transparency.”

A Chinese submarine off Qingdao in China’s Shandong province. Photo: AFP

As per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Malaysia claims the waters and seabed that extend 200 nautical miles from its coast. This includes an extended continental shelf claim it jointly submitted with Vietnam in 2009.

Malaysia also lays claim to 12 islands in the Spratlys archipelago, and occupies five.

China objects to most of Malaysia’s maritime claims because they fall within the controversial “nine-dash line”, a geographical marker of its claims that stretches as far as 2,000km from the Chinese mainland, reaching waters close to Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Beijing also claims the entire Spratlys formation, asserting that Luconia Shoals and James Shoal are part of the Spratlys even though they are underwater and therefore legally part of Malaysia’s continental shelf.

The United States, Southeast Asia’s dominant naval power, has consistently challenged Chinese claims to the area, with Washington often running freedom of navigation operations in these waters.

Malaysia has five offshore stations in the Spratlys, which are patrolled by the country’s armed forces and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.

China has long maintained the dispute can only be resolved via separate bilateral discussions between Beijing and each of the Southeast Asian claimants.

On Thursday, a Malaysian official announced film censors had ordered a scene removed from a DreamWorks animated movie that shows China’s “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea.

Malaysia’s move came a day after the Philippines slammed DreamWorks over the map in Abominable, and urged Filipinos to boycott the company. Vietnam pulled the movie from its cinemas on Monday in protest over the map.

Additional reporting by Reuters

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: minister calls for upgrading of navy amid fear of clashes