Malaysia received one of four large patrol ships it had ordered for the first time from China, the Royal Malaysian Navy said Tuesday, in what a security analyst hailed as a sign that Kuala Lumpur’s multimillion-dollar naval modernization effort would push through.
Four Malaysian officials led by Defense Ministry secretary Ahmad Husaini Abdul Rahman received the documents after examining the Keris-class Littoral Mission Ship (LMS) during a handover ceremony at the Wucang Port in Shanghai, the navy said in a statement.
“After the inspection, a signing ceremony was held to mark the official handover of the ship to the Malaysian government,” the statement said.
The patrol ship is part of a four-vessel contract, which was originally worth about 1.17 billion ringgit (U.S. $289 million) that was approved by former Prime Minister Najib Razak in April 2017.
The contract price dropped to around 1 billion ringgit (U.S. $256 million) after Malaysia agreed that all four ships would be built and delivered in China. The initial plan stipulated that the last two units would be built in Malaysia by the state-affiliated Boustead Naval Shipyard, but the deal was updated in March this year.
The new ship is scheduled to be commissioned on Jan. 6 next year, the statement said. It said Adm. Syed Zahrul Putra Syed Abdullah, the Malaysian navy’s Eastern Fleet commander, witnessed the signing ceremony and Malaysian officials also took part in the ship’s demonstration voyage.
While the patrol vessel is euphemistically called a littoral mission ship (LMS), it is generally considered a warship often armed with various weapons, such as either a 20 mm or a 30 mm main gun, and torpedo launchers. Its flight deck can accommodate a medium-size helicopter.
“The ship is not only important for safety but it also relates to the country's prestige and ability to defend its maritime sovereignty,” security analyst Ramli Dollah of Universiti Malaysia Sabah told BenarNews, praising Kuala Lumpur’s move to upgrade its naval assets and reduce maintenance costs.
“This ownership is also part of the naval modernization effort. It's time to replace the old ships, especially when Malaysia is facing some maritime issues,” he said.
The Asia-Pacific region is now one of the fastest-growing markets for arms dealers such as China, the world's second-largest military spender and owner of two aircraft carriers, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a Swedish think tank that monitors global security issues and provides research on armaments.
Other than Malaysia, Beijing has also sold weapons to at least six Southeast Asian nations since 2006, SIPRI said.
Adm. Ahmad Badaruddin Kamarulzaman, the Royal Malaysian Navy chief, told reporters in April 2017 that the Muslim-majority nation would eventually have a total of 18 LMS in its fleet.
Mahathir ordered a review of China-backed projects as the country dealt with the country’s debt after his Pakatan Harapan alliance defeated Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition in the May 2018 general election.
Security analysts earlier said Malaysia was in need of versatile and faster combat boats such as the LMS, as the country and its neighbors grappled with piracy and a flow of foreign militants across the Sulu Sea to the southern Philippines.
Economic growth and territorial disputes in Southeast Asia propelled a 52 percent increase in defense spending over the last decade to $392 billion in 2018, according to a SIPRI report last year, which underscored that the region accounts for more than a fifth of the global defense budget.
“The [Southeast Asian] region is currently embarked on a substantial arms modernization drive which is unfolding amid continuing unresolved differences and security problems,” according to a SIPRI report last year.
“Under these conditions arms build-ups, unless properly handled, could result in unnecessary tensions, suspicions and instabilities,” it said.