Analysts: Malaysia’s Navy Drill Sends Strong Message to South China Sea Claimants

S. Adie Zul, Nisha David, Dizhwar Bukhari, and Muzliza Mustafa
Kuala Lumpur
2021-08-20
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Analysts: Malaysia’s Navy Drill Sends Strong Message to South China Sea Claimants An Exocet MM40 missile is fired from the KD Lekir during the “Taming Sari” exercise by the Malaysian Navy, Aug.12, 2021.
[Photo courtesy Royal Malaysian Navy]

Malaysia’s successful test-fire of three live anti-ship missiles last week clearly shows it is prepared to deal with intrusions into its South China Sea territory, analysts said on Friday.

The Malaysian Navy’s “Taming Sari” exercise was noteworthy, as it was conducted following the intrusion of 16 Chinese military planes into Malaysia’s maritime airspace over the disputed South China Sea in May, said Lai Yew Meng, a regional security analyst.

“There is indeed a need to visibly demonstrate, via exercises like the Taming Sari, Malaysia's capabilities and national will to defend its sovereignty,” Lai, with Universiti Malaysia Sabah, told BenarNews.

“This is especially significant following the [Chinese military’ planes'] overflight that ostensibly almost encroached on Malaysian air space at the end of May. Observers suggest that was a possible attempt by the Chinese military to test Malaysia's combat readiness and operational capabilities.”

The six-day exercise, which ended Aug. 12, was the first warfare drill since the COVID-19 pandemic began early last year. Malaysia held similar drills in 2019 and 2014.

During the exercise, the Malaysian Navy’s submarine, KD Tun Razak, successfully launched one Exocet SM39 anti-ship missile, while two other ships, KD Lekiu and KD Lekir, launched one Exocet MM40 guided missile each.

Both the anti-ship missiles are made by French defense manufacturer MBDA Systems. The MM40 Exocet can hit a target as far as 35 miles, while SM39 Exocet can reach 22 miles. 

The drill included nine ships, five Fast Combat Boats, a submarine, two Super Lynx helicopters, four Royal Malaysian Air Force F/A-18D Hornet fighter jets and two assets belonging to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.

More than 1,000 members of Malaysia’s security forces participated in the exercise.

‘Malaysia is no pushover’

Security analyst Lai said the exercise sends a strong signal, especially  to Beijing, which claims almost all of the disputed South China Sea.

“A successful exercise would send a clear message across to other SCS claimants, including China, that Malaysia is no pushover, and nor is it unprepared to use force, if absolutely necessary, to rebuke imminent external threats, despite the obvious power asymmetry vis-a-vis the likes of China,” Lai said.

The analyst was referring to the May 31 incursion by Chinese military aircraft, which flew to as close as 60 nautical miles from Kuala Lumpur-administered Beting Patinggi Ali – also known as Luconia Shoals – which Beijing, too, claims as part of its territories in the maritime region.

The incursion prompted Malaysia to scramble Hawk 20 combat jets from its Labuan airbase after the Chinese aircraft failed to respond to local air traffic controllers.

Chinese coast guard ships have since early June also been putting pressure on and harassing new Malaysian oil and gas projects in the South China Sea off Sarawak state on Borneo Island, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a U.S.-based think-tank researching ship-tracking data said in a report last month.

“This is at least the third time since last spring that the CCG has harassed Malaysian energy exploration,” AMTI, a subsidiary of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said in the report titled “Contest at Kasawari: Another Malaysian Gas Project Faces Pressure.”

“It demonstrates again Beijing’s persistence in challenging its neighbors’ oil and gas activities within their own exclusive economic zones. And the air patrol, which was likely not a coincidence, suggests Beijing’s willingness to engage in parallel escalation to pressure other claimants to back down,” the report said, referring to Chinese planes' incursion.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone as well.

Earlier this month, Malaysia also participated in the annual multilateral exercise Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) with the United States and 20 other countries.

Lai said that such multilateral military and naval exercises are an essential feature in Malaysia’s “hedging” policy." This strategy is meant to strengthen the country’s limited defense capabilities – via partnerships with traditional defense partners – against security threats and challenges amid geopolitical uncertainties in the region, he said.

“Apart from being a deterrence to potential Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, such multilateral exercises involving the U.S. would certainly provide an additional sense of reassurance to regional states regarding Washington’s credibility as a security partner and regional security provider,” Lai said. 

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