Recent revelation of China making land reclamation on Mischief Island which form part of the Spratly's had raised the concern of other claimants to the chain of islands.
Leading the charge is the Philippines and Vietnam, both nations who not only distrust the country, but had actually fought against the Chinese military might before; the Philippines while under the aegis of UN during the Korean War while Vietnam during the Sino - Vietnam 1979 border clashes. The Philippines had hoped Malaysia as the current chairman to ASEAN, a regional grouping that Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines members would be firmer towards China. However, there were not much noise coming from the recently concluded ASEAN Regional Ministerial Meeting, which was held in KL.
In fact, Malaysia is being seen playing it coyly with China on matters pertaining to South China Sea, even when the People's Liberation Army - Navy (PLA - N) had conducted a naval exercise in the vicinity of James Shoal (Beting Serupai to Malaysian and Zhengmu Reef to China), a rocky outcrop located about 80 nautical miles away from the Malaysian town of Bintulu back in 2013.
This fact is not lost to the Chinese, who had reciprocated Malaysia by giving the country a differential treatment. This has led to PLA conducting a table top military exercise with Malaysia at the end of 2014, with a full fledged military exercise planned for this year. Add on top of it, Chinese Politburo is said to be behind the recent visit of Chinese August One acrobatic team to Malaysia's Langkawi International Maritime and Air Show (LIMA) 2015.
Why does Malaysia, a regional powerhouse in the 90's, choose to pander to China instead of being aggresive towards China's military expansionism in South China Sea? For us to understand this quirkiness, let us first understand the unique Sino - Malay relationship which has been in play since at least 649 AD.
Sino - Malay Relationship
Contrary to popular belief that Sino - Malay relationship only began in 1400 in Malacca, the relationship has started much earlier on with I-Ching, a Buddhist monk from China who had came to the old Kedah Empire at Lembah Bujang to translate Buddhism scripts. While not much is known of the extent of relationship between the Malay civilization and that of Chinese, this was the earliest known seed of relationship between both civilizations.
When Malacca Sultanate was founded by Parameswara, a Srivijayan prince, it was not too long before the new kingdom forge relationship with the Chinese empire.
This accumulated with the Chinese emperor marrying off one of his princess, Princess Hang Li Poh (though historical records has yet to confirm from which of his wives or concubine did the princess came from) with Sultan Mansur Syah (1456 - 1477), the sixth Sultan of Malacca.
When Malacca was invaded by the Portuguese in 1511, the Chinese Empire were too late in sending their reinforcement. This accumulated with the killing and castration of some of Portugal's envoys to China. Amongst them was Tom Pires, the author of Suma Orientals (he survived the persecution, though he was never allowed to leave China).
Relationship between both civilizations continued in modern era with China's Sun Yat Sen, the founding father of modern China establishing his fight in Penang. This was followed by thousands of Malayan born Chinese serving in Kuomintang Army to fight against Japanese occupation in China. The fall of China to communism soon result in a hiatus in the relationship between both nations, with Malaysia facing threats of communism herself.
The relationship only resumed when Malaysia's second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak visited China for the first time on 31st May 1971. The visit reestablished and strengthened the relationship of both civilization as the Chinese Politburo took to recognize people of Chinese descent who are born outside China as non-Chinese citizens, then a serious bone that resulted in suspicion in the loyalty of Chinese to their new adopted nations worldwide, Malaysia included (it was believed China agreed to this upon the discreet suggestion from Singapore's then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew).
The Asian financial crisis in 1997 to 1998 saw the fall of many of Asian new tigers. Malaysia was no exception. Facing economic uncertainty, then Malaysia's Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir had wanted to obtain financial help from Singapore, but this was rejected. Only when then China's Li Peng announced that they would not devalue Renminbi in favour of to help to stabilize the global economy, that Malaysia received its breathing space in the financial economy.
Despite the missing airliner MH370 being a blot in the relationship between both nations, the relationship between both nations continue to grow strongly outside the context of South China Sea.
Another key reason to Malaysia's softer stand to China's foray into South China Sea has to do with the deteriorating military power.
After the end of communist rebellion in 1990, Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) had embarked on an ambitious modernization programme to modernize her military from a counter-insurgency (COIN) orientated defence force to a conventional warfare ready armed forces. Focus were given to both navy and air force to modernize their equipment to allow them to fight against the enemy even before they enter Malaysian territorial waters.
Unfortunately, the MAF had fallen victim to the Asian financial crisis, severely limiting her expansion plan.
Successive governments post Mahathir did not provide much thought in further strengthening the military. This was not helped by the fact any planned military asset purchases were being politicized by the opposition; instead of criticizing the quality of the purchases, they were alluding of embezzlement. This had in a way spooked the government from making any meaningful capital expenditure that would strengthen the MAF.
To better understand the woes that is being faced by MAF today, we would need to look into each of the services.
With 80,000 men, the Army is the largest and the oldest service in MAF. Starting from an experimental company in Port Dickson on 1st March 1933, the service is marked with gallantry of the highest order from the killing fields of Cambodia to fiery firefight in Mogadishu.
While the service may not be exposed to potential conflict with China due to the South China Sea being primarily a naval and airspace issue, nevertheless, we should not exclude the possibility of a land-based conflict being ignited in order to divert MAF's attention as a whole. This can be seen in the Philippines, where AFP is suspecting that the New People's Army communist guerrillas are acting on China's behest to divert AFP's focus towards internal issues. How true is this allegation is remain to be seen.
Under the PERISTA programme in the late 80's, the service had received large number of armoured combat vehicles to form both its armoured and mechanized formation.
In the early 90's, the service had adopted Steyr AUG A1 rifles to replace the venerable M16A1. The idea then was to provide each man a rifle with a scope. With SME Ordnance being given the right to manufacture weapon in the contract, it was hoped that the local defence industry would begin to gain a footing. It was not to be. In 2009, the service opted to purchase M4A1 to replace the Steyr rifles, with SME Ordnance receiving the contract again to manufacture the rifles.
The last couple of years saw the service purchasing a large number of utility trucks in the form of Westar 4x4 and Spanish-made VAMTAC to replace the venerable Land Rover. These hodgepodge of different types of support vehicles are a concern as the service is adopting a multitude of vehicle that would translate to a logistical nightmare.
The purchase of 48 units of Polish-made Pendekar (PT91M Twardy) medium MBT finally realized MAF dream to have its own armoured regiment. But the demise of Bumar Labedy, the manufacturer of the beast may spell its doom in MAF service.
The Army Air Corp today operates A109 as its primary helicopter. With 9 units of helicopters, these are being extensively used today in the ESSCOM, defending the nation's eastern front from further threat from Suluk intruders. The latest addition to the Air Corp would be refurbished Nuri S61A4 helicopters from the Air Force.
Other than the procurement of AV8 Gempita Armoured Combat Vehicle, the development of the service is erratic at best.
Today, the service has a standing need for the following assets, most which were supposed to be purchased under the 10th Malaysia Plan:-
The need for at least a squadron of attack helicopter had been floated around since at least 1996. To date, Denel's Rooivalk and Eurocopter Tigre were amongst the known contender to fill the requirement. Unfortunately there role is yet to be filled. With the threat of Suluk intruders, the requirement is getting more urgent.
However, considering potential geopolitical threat, a full blown attack helicopter such as AH64 Apache may be an overkill.
155mm Self-Propelled Howitzer
The need for at least 1 regiment of SPH had also been floated around since at least 1996 - 1998. To date, French-made Caeser 155mm SPH had been tested. However, this has yet to translate to actual LOI. Interestingly, the Thai had purchased several units of the SPH for their own service.
New Regiment of MBT
With 48 units of MBT to cover both regions (East and West Malaysia), the armoured regiment is being stretched too thin. Thus, at least another 1 or 2 more MBT regiments should be procured.
However, on a personal note, MBT may not be the best choice to operate in our environment. The same role can be played by our AV8. Thus, my personal recommendation would be for the Army to increase the number of AV8 with anti-armour variants.
Air Defence - Missile
MAF has a standing need to procure medium to long range anti-air missiles. Despite being offered to purchase S300 and BUK M1 system by the Russians since at least 1998, this has yet to translate to actual purchase.
On a personal note, possibility of BUK M1 being able to make the cut in the future had been seriously undercut by the tragic downing of MH17 over the skies of Ukraine.
On another note, procurement of SAM system would be the best counter-measure in the event if RMAF were to lose all its birds. Best example would be Syria, where the Bashar's government is still able to defend its skies from air strikes from either US or her allies.
Royal Malaysian Navy
Like the Army, RMN has its tradition in the British Royal Navy. Thus it retained the proud tradition that it had inherited from the British.
Of the 3 service, the Navy will be the one most exposed to the threat posed by any conflict in South China Sea. Yet, it is too the service which had suffered the most in terms of asset procurement.
Most of the ships in the Navy's service today have served more than 15 years. Several ships had undergone SLEP (Service Life Extension Programme).
The much touted Kedah-class New Generation Patrol Vessel (NGPV) turned out to be an eyesore. Purchased using the concept of Fitted-For-But-Not-With (FFBNW), the Kedah class ships are virtually naked. Despite KD Kedah (pennant number F171) being in service since 2006, the ships are currently still being armed only with a single 76mm Oto Melara main gun and a single 30mm Breda-Mauser gun.
Much of the Navy's predicament are due to the action of one man, Amin Shah, formerly the chairman of PSC Naval Dockyard, the main contractor for the purchase of the Kedah class NGPV. To date, no action has been taken on this man and his whereabouts is unknown. Though this might change soon as Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission is now currently poring through the Navy's records as several mid-ranking navy personnel had been identified to be involved in embezzlement in another separate case. Fingers crossed.
Navy's Laksamana class ships (formerly Assad class) were also rumoured to be downgraded from FAC Missile to FAC Gun. Though we recently received news that the ships would still be upgraded with new missiles (type unknown, but speculated to be NSM to be similar to what is to be fitted on Gowind-class ship, renamed as LCS).
The loss of KD Inderapura (pennant number 1505) to fire back in 2009 had severely affected the Navy's ability to provide logistical support to MAF. During the recent Lahad Datu crisis, MAF had to obtain the service from civilian transport service to send armoured combat vehicles from West Malaysia to Sabah.
Another Navy ship, KD Mutiara, which is a hydrographic ship too had suffered mishaps. In 2012, it had suffered a fire while it was being refitted. This was followed by another ship, KD Perantau listing on its portside while being berthed at Lumut. Half of the ship ended up in the water.
While the Navy had a part in the SAR operations for MH370 in the South Indian Ocean, the Navy has only 2 ships that are capable of operating in the rough ocean. With conditions in South Indian Ocean could turn from Sea State 1 to Sea State 7 in matter of minutes, only KD Jebat (pennant number FFG 29) and KD Lekiu (pennant number FFG30) are able to fare the rough sea condition. With KD Jebat being damaged by a collision with an unknown vessel just 2 months before the airliner went missing.
The only 3 bright marks for the navy are the successful deployment of the Perdana Menteri class submarines (Scorpene class submarines) which unfortunately is the only line of defence that Malaysia has in the South China Sea that none of the competing nations has a solution on. However, this advantage may soon erode as competing nations are now increasing their anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities by increasing their fleet of ASW dedicated helicopters.
Another mark of success would be the submarine's successful deployment of her heavy torpedo, Spanish-made Black Shark in November 2014. While the deployment of the torpedo is not the first worldwide, it is the first time the missile was deployed in tropical waters.
The Navy's air wing, flying both Super Lynx and Fennec too has made marks, especially in HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) effort. Fennec too had been deployed successfully in military operations in South Aden in Ops Fajar, where a Fennec helicopter had effectively prevented pirates from sending reinforcement to board MV Bunga Laurel.
So far, the navy has 3 pressing needs for the future.
Littoral Combat Ship (LCS)
Following the US in naming the new navy ship as LCS, the Gowind class ship for all purpose and intent are high capability corvettes. To be armed with NSM instead of the traditional Exocet, the move is in the right direction as the telemetry for Exocet missiles are already known by most of the navies that are vying for controls in South China Sea.
While the ship is being armed for MICA for air defence, it is pertinent to point out that the ship is not dedicated anti-air platform. May be the next evolution for the navy would be a dedicated anti-air platform?
Despite political innuendos that we do not require submarines, the 2 submarines that now patrolling our seas are insufficient. While the price of a submarine is very high, each submarine is able to tie down more enemy assets just to hunt it down. Thus, submarines are an extremely effective deterrence strategic asset.
While there are talks of the Navy needing as many as 6 submarines, my personal view is we require at least 10 submarines.
An army moves on its stomach. So does a navy. As mentioned earlier, the loss of KD Inderapura had severely affected MAF's sea lifting capability. Amongst the choice to fill up this role is South Korean made Dokdo class amphibious assault ship.
On another note, French-made Mistral are available. Originally meant for the Russian Navy, the Ukrainian conflict had resulted the ship being embargoed from being sent to Russia. Interestingly, in the recently concluded Exercise Malfran 2015, one RMAF Cougar helicopter had landed on top of French Navy's Mistral class ship, the Dixmude.
Royal Malaysian Air Force
RMAF is the youngest service branch in MAF. Despite being the youngest, they usually get the best candidates due to their higher profile.
Like the Navy, RMAF too would bear the brunt of any conflict in the South China Sea.
Today, RMAF combat fleet consist mostly of ageing fighters, in the form of 8 FA18D Hornets, 16 MiG29N/NUB, 18 SU30MKM, and 19 BAe Hawks 208 and 108. While this may seems that RMAF have sufficient air combat capabilities, the logistical nightmare for RMAF must be indescribable.
The arrival of A400M Atlas into RMAF order of battle has at least lightened up MAF strategic lifting power. Though this capability still could not match the same as being offered by the Navy.
Purchase of EC725 too has opened the eyes of many the capability of this helicopter. During the recent flood situation in the northern states, the helicopters had performed admirably, resupplying remote locations with food and supplies.
For RMAF, there are 3 pressing needs that defence planners at MINDEF needs to consider.
As I have discussed in an earlier article, RMAF requires a new MRCA to replace the MiG29N Fulcrums. While the Sukhoi 30 are relatively new, the rest of our fleet has almost reached 2 decades in service.
If this materialize, it is hoped that the RMAF would be able to procure at least 48 units of MRCA. If this number of aircraft is being procured, this would allow RMAF to not only retire the MiG29, but also at least another class of aircraft.
With the need being identified since 1990's, this platform is important for Malaysia as this would help RMAF to maximize its air assets. In my article to Perajurit which was published in March 2015, I have strongly suggested that RMAF should procure at least 6 units, preferably 8 units of Saab 2000 AEW&C platform. Not only this platform is able to provide early warning system for our Air Force, but it also able to monitor naval movement. It can in fact detect movements of objects as large as a jet ski up to maximum of 450km away.
Medium Transport Helicopter
With some of RMAF Nuri S61A4 being donated to the Army Air Corp, RMAF would be needing more helicopters to allow it to perform logistical resupply nationwide. Additional procurement of EC725 basic version should be sufficient to fill up this role.
While the wish list is long, it might be difficult to be fulfilled within the next Malaysia Plan (11th Malaysia Plan), which is to be tabled in May 2015 in the Parliament. With the South China Sea is getting hotter, it is prudent for the Government to increase the capital expenditure for MAF to face the impending threat.
Not only the Government must chip in, but also the opposition. Enough politicizing every security related issue. It is time to depoliticize defence.
May be it is time for the Opposition should build their own internal defence analysts around a credible figure. They have this in First Admiral (R) Tuan Haji Mohamad Imran Abdul Hamid, PKR Member of Parliament for Lumut.
NOTE: this article is based on feedback received from different observers.