BY INS Contributors

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Laying claim on an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 334,671 sq km,with 200 nautical miles (370.4 km) from its shores, much of it in the South China Sea, Malaysia has thus far proven to be unable to credibly enforce its claims in the area.

The June 1 intrusion of 16 strategic heavy lift aircraft, flying in an in-trail tactical formation 60 nautical miles from one another, laid bare the country’s ability to respond to such intrusions, with the aircraft passing over the Luconia Shoals area claimed by Malaysia.

Malaysia did attempt an intercept, sending an unspecified number of ageing Hawk 208 fighters but even in the incident map provided by the country’s air force, the formation continued its path past the interceptor before making a leisurely turn back.

This dramatic incident was followed by another intrusion by a China Coast Guard ship just four days later according to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, the country’s coastguard.

Between 2016 and 2019, China Coast Guard and navy ships trespassed into Malaysian waters a total of 89 times, often near Luconia Shoals.

China claims more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea through its “nine-dash line”, which stretches as far as 2,000km from the mainland, including waters close to Indonesia and Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Military-political disconnect

The incident, like many before it, would have been swept under the rug by successive Malaysian government’s, who have taken a compliant stand  towards these intrusions.

Even in the latest incident, it was the country’s air force that made the first move in a through a very rare and strongly worded statement:

“This incident is a serious matter against the threat of NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY and AVIATION SAFETY based on the density of air traffic in the airline route (Airways) in KK FIR (Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region).”

The capital letters stress how the air force felt about the incident, and expressed their frustration at the lack of action by politicians, especially the current Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who had previously served as the country’s defense minister.

Hishammuddin himself had previously courted controversy calling China a “big brother” in front of his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. This was done in a live televised press conference on April 2 in Beijing, where Malaysia’s top diplomat was attending a bilateral Malaysia-China dialogue.

The remark drew condemnation from various quarters in the country, accusing the minister of lacking severely in the qualities needed to assert Malaysia’s independence and interests against China, which has engaged itself in a number of major infrastructure projects in the country as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In a bid to look tough following the assertive statement by the air force, Hishammuddin issued his own, more “diplomatically worded” statement to explain “this breach of the Malaysian airspace and sovereignty" and said he would summon the Chinese ambassador in the country. Whether that actually transpired is unknown as there was no follow up statement issued.

For its part, the Chinese embassy said its military planes didn't violate Malaysia's airspace and had exercised freedom of overflight in the area. It said they were carrying out routine flight training and didn't target any country.

Decades long neglect of armed forces, pliant politicians

Malaysia’s armed forces not only have to contend with ineffective politicians and docile administrations but these brave volunteers also have to serve with substandard equipment that is often ageing, dated and lacking integration being sourced from a wide number of countries.

Even worse the armed forces have suffered from various procurement scandals, resulting in submarines that will not dive, aircraft that will not fly and tanks that will not roll.

Mohamad Sabu, who served as defense minister during the short lived Pakatan Harapan reformist government had revealed that only four out of the 28 Russian fighter jets operated by air force are able to take to the skies.

Despite some moves to remedy these problems and the launch of the first ever Defense White Paper to bring systematic changes  to these issues, the PH government was overthrown in a coup engineered by elements of the former Barisan Nasional regime which led the country from 1957 to pivotal elections in 2018, when it finally lost national elections.

Hishammuddin was appointed by current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, whose government is floundering with its attempts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, has demonstrated it will remain weak on matters involving its national interest.

In fact one of the first countries to recognise the coup government, derisively called the backdoor government by most Malaysians was China, with China's Premier Li Keqiang congratulating Muhyiddin, saying he looked forward to working with Muhyiddin for a greater China-Malaysia bilateral relationship.

Rudderless and vulnerable

While other countries in the region have made strong efforts to upgrade their air defense systems as a means of deterrence, with ranges of up to 150 km in the instance of Vietnam’s Russian built S-300 system, Malaysia continues to operate mainly man-portable systems and the dated Rapier surface to air missile (SAM) with a range of 8 km, hardly any reach considering its claims over the South China Sea.

Many have also upgraded their anti-ship missile and naval warfare capabilities, while Malaysia operates small numbers of decent anti-ship missiles, it needs to look at ways to better deploy these and to add to its stocks.

Unless a more assertive stand is taken, either by the current administration or any future one, China can only be expected to do what it has done elsewhere, use salami tactics-applying pressure at an intermediate to gradually make gains without sparking an open confrontation.

Malaysia must be serious if it aims to keep what it claims and this, while being an expensive endeavor, is more than achievable with good governance, transparency in its defense procurements and the political will to step up to the task.

Russia has offered to barter arms for palm oil while others such as the US would gladly supply some systems and training as a means of countering China and ensuring freedom of navigation and maneuver in the area are maintained.

In fact the US has already supplied the country with a dozen Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for maritime patrol. Perhaps a mutual defense treaty which includes the transfer of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) would be in its interests.

Options are plenty but only the determination to build up a credible deterrent will see the country secure its borders. Otherwise it will be boxed in, pressured and picked apart by the aggressive expansionist intentions of others.