By Assoc Prof Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey
In the midst of a “total lockdown” to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Malaysians woke up to the shocking news of 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft of China flying over Malaysian maritime zone airspace close to Sarawak on 31 May 2021. The PLAAF aircraft consisted of Ilyushin Il-76 and Xian Y-20 multi-role airlifters.
According to the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), the squadron-size PLAAF aircraft flew in tactical formation and passed close to Beting Patinggi Ali (South Luconia Shoals) which is administered by Malaysia and inside Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) but claimed by China as part of its “nine-dash line” claim of almost the whole of the South China Sea.
RMAF ground controllers contacted the PLAAF aircraft for identification and intent of flight but received no response which prompted the RMAF to scramble Hawk 208 light combat aircraft (LCA) to intercept and visually identify the aircraft. Once intercepted by the RMAF LCAs, the PLAAF aircraft turned and flew out.
This latest ‘buzzing’ of Malaysian air defence by the PLAAF is possibly to test our air defence response and gather electronic intelligence such as RMAF’s radar signature and scrambling time as well. China’s PLAAF has been consistently buzzing Taiwan’s air defence systems almost on a daily basis for the past few months and Taiwan’s experience serves as an indication that China may continue to fly close to Malaysian airspace in the coming days.
Claim over South China Sea
This latest Chinese act may be linked to its strategy to assertively claim almost the whole of the South China Sea. China has been using coast guard vessels and fishermen-militia to enter Malaysia’s maritime zone regularly.
For example, last year between 15 and 28 April 2020, China sent a survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, with 10 coast guard and maritime militia vessels to shadow a Petronas-contracted exploration ship, the West Cappella, about 324 kilometres from the Malaysian coast.
This prompted the United States Navy to send a small flotilla of combat vessels to the scene to check on the Chinese maritime operations. This small flotilla was later joined by an Australian frigate HMAS Parramatta.
After spending a few days in the area, the Chinese, US, and Australian vessels quietly moved out, providing an uneventful ending to the standoff.
There was another shocking act by China early this year in the South China Sea which serves as a stark reminder to Malaysia to be always vigilant and have sufficient military assets to deter a similar act.
On the 7th of March this year, a large armada of more than 200 Chinese fishing boats docked on Whitsun Reef (or known as the Julian Felipe Reef by the Philippines) close to the western Philippine province of Palawan in the South China Sea. This latest feat by China resulted in angry protests from numerous Filipino politicians and officials, and continued to foster worries on future Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
Malaysia’s national interests
The latest PLAAF flight over Malaysia’s maritime zone airspace may point to a potentially more aggressive stance in which airpower may be used to deploy assets and manpower to occupy claimed islands and reefs in the South China Sea. This means that the Malaysian Armed Forces need not just have additional naval vessels but also air defence assets to safeguard Malaysia’s national interests especially its vast South China Sea maritime zone and airspace above it, and to provide a credible deterrence against would-be foreign aggressors.
The key defence capability-building plans for the Malaysian Armed Forces has been spelled out in Malaysia’s first Defence White Paper approved by Parliament in 2019. Among some of the key assets and capabilities required in this decade are the development of cyber warfare and amphibious capabilities for the Malaysian Army, acquiring and building Littoral Mission Ships (LMS) for the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN), and the procurement of Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and modern Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for the RMAF.
The Hawk 208 LCAs used to intercept the PLAAF have been in service for more than 25 years and are in urgent need of being complemented by modern LCAs. The RMAF may also need to expedite the acquisition of additional air defence radars and Medium Range Air Defence (MERAD) systems, as expressed in the 2019 Defence White Paper.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may result in an economic slowdown and there are understandably strong worries about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Malaysia’s economy and whether defence procurement and capability-building for the Malaysian Armed Forces may be put on the back burner.
In times of financial austerity, the defence sector usually gets the first cut to offset some budgetary trimmings. Nonetheless, despite the possible economic pressures posed by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of continuous financial support for the health sector, the defence sector must not be side-lined.
Asset acquisitions usually take a long timeframe to materialise, anywhere between two and five years, and sometimes up to a decade for bigger and high-tech assets. The acquisitions of military assets are usually planned ahead to acquire future capabilities to deter both expected and unexpected threats, and replacement of obsolete equipment. If asset acquisitions are delayed, the direct effects are compounded for years. Assets may be more expensive to procure in the future and the assets may be obsolete when they are finally acquired.
Meanwhile, the men and women may need to continually utilise assets that are already old but may be dangerous to operate with. Some of these older assets may not have a long operational tempo with high costs to maintain. This may cause the Malaysian Armed Forces to have low operational readiness and short tempo of operations (burdened with high operational costs), hampering the Malaysian Armed Forces’ capability to defend Malaysia’s vast national interests such as those in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile strategic threats and security risks continue to rise and will reach a stage where Malaysia’s national interest may be lost in the absence of sufficient assets and capabilities to deter or disrupt a potential foe from forcibly acquiring Malaysia’s contested national interests. Once a national interest is lost, it is very hard to recover it, short of using armed violence!
Strategic defence capability-building
Malaysia has to balance its strategic ends with its means deftly. The defence sector needs to be allocated sufficient funds to at least spend on minimal capability-building in the most important areas rather than none at all. The defence industry is also a potential economic area that could contribute back to the nation’s economy.
For example, the Malaysian Armed Forces’ procurements can be tied back to local defence companies and suppliers. If there is a need to partner with foreign companies, the government can enforce high levels of transfer of technology (perhaps even up to 100%) with significant local manpower, local vendors and local contents involved. This may continue to sustain the local defence industry, create new job opportunities, build Malaysian companies’ expertise, support defence technology start-ups, and generate economic contribution from these segments. The investments in the defence sector may provide opportunities for Malaysia to attain self-reliance in niche areas as spelled out in its 2019 Defence White Paper.
Malaysia should continue to place importance on its strategic defence capability-building and asset acquisitions to build a potent Malaysian Armed Forces equipped to deter future threats.
The sustained defence modernisation plans will also send strong signals to near peers and foreign powers that Malaysia is serious in safeguarding its national interests.
A future armed force that can deliver credible deterrence will ensure Malaysia’s national interests are continually defended at all times because strategic threats never sleep.
Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is associate professor in strategic studies and the Deputy Director (Research) in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia.