By INS Contributors

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Middle East observers are looking at the latest move by the US to pull air defense systems out of the region with keen interest, with some saying this would change the balance of power in the region.

The systems include several Patriot surface to air missile batteries and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which had been based in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan with some of the systems being returned to the US for maintenance with the rest being redeployed to other regions.

The U.S. military is in the midst of a major shift in its focus, after two decades fighting terrorist and other violent extremist groups in the Middle East. The Pentagon's National Defense Strategy now prioritizes preparing for a so-called "great power competition," the potential threat from peer or near-peer nations with formidable militaries such as Russia, China or North Korea.

South China Sea as a flashpoint

Taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has made several aggressive forays into the area, including a dramatic intrusion into Malaysia’s airspace on June 1, which saw 16 strategic cargo aircraft follow a tactical in-line path off Malaysia’s northern Borneo state of Sarawak over the Luconia Shoals, the largest reef complex in the area.

This and a June 4 intrusion by the Chinese Coast Guard on June 4, have rattled the Southeast Asian nation which finds itself with limited means to respond to such intrusions and little to no credible deterrence.

These incidents follow a series of other provocative actions including the 'incursions' by nearly 300 Chinese militia boats into waters belonging to the Philippines, not to mention constant pressure against Taiwan which also claims part of the sea.

Malaysia as test case

Independent analyst Azmi Hassan said the incident should serve as a wakeup call for the government to take the lack of a potent air defense system seriously and that Malaysia's current capabilities leave a lot to be desired.

“Considering the area of the South China Sea and the number of aircraft involved, this could be seen as an attempt to test our preparedness and our abilities in enforcing our claims and defending our maritime airspace.

Azmi said while the cost of such systems seemed prohibitive, Malaysia can and must get creative, including leveraging on current geopolitics to get the best deal for itself.

“Perhaps after the pandemic is over we could give this more focus, but the bottom line is our air defenses must be upgraded to provide an effective deterrence against any party seeking to test our resolve and national sovereignty. We have to acquire stronger capabilities.

“If the US will not give us a good deal on its Patriot missile or other missile, we could ask Russia about some of their systems. In fact they have already pledged to offset the cost of military equipment with palm oil,” he said.

Ageing systems leave Malaysia open to incursions

Malaysia currently maintains an inventory of old and new surface to air missiles meant to engage aircraft but these systems have a maximum range of 8 kilometers and many are short ranged man portable systems.

Of these the UK-made Rapier missile has the longest range but even this system first entered service in the 1970s. Malaysia operates 15 launchers with an estimated stock of 72 missiles.

This is in sharp contrast with other countries in the region with Indonesia operating the Norway-made NASAMS of 30 kmr range, Thailand operating the China-made KS-1 of 50 km range, Singapore with the French-Italian-made Aster of 70 km range and Vietnam with the Russia-made S-300 of 150 km range.

Backing words with actions

China has taken steps to draw members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) into its sphere of influence either through the sale and supply of military or economic incentives.

Some others like Cambodia have been increasingly drawn towards Beijing most notably Cambodia and Thailand, the latter of which has engaged in an arms buildup with Chinese made weapons, a missed opportunity as Thailand had been a key customer for US-made military equipment.

Perhaps supplying Malaysia with some Patriot batteries or even a THAAD system would be just what's needed to show China that the US is able and willing to take measures to ensure freedom of navigation in the region beyond sailing through the area.

It must be noted when South Korea hosted THAAD on its soil, China kicked up a storm over their deployment but ultimately it had to accept that this would be the status quo. Certainly a similar deployment in ASEAN would deflate its ambitions in the area.

Positioning such systems in Malaysia, which has thousands of kilometers facing the South China Sea, whether on loan or through some other arrangement would indeed beef up the country's capabilities and demonstrate to others in the region that China is not the only game in town.