Malaysia has revived anti-ship missile firings in the South China Sea shortly after Beijing test-fired at least one missile in the area around the contested Spratly Islands, but analysts expressed doubt Wednesday that these military actions would stoke tensions.
The missile firings were held as part of a larger exercise in the disputed waterway that was revived after a pause of several years because of concerns about costs, Malaysia’s Navy chief, Adm. Mohd Reza Mohd Sany, told reporters during a media briefing this week. China and Malaysia are among six nations that have territorial claims in the sea.
“The last time the missiles were fired was in 2014. After five years, it gives us the chance to test the readiness of the guided missiles, missile platform again, as well as the personnel assigned,” he told reporters. “The guided missiles were on target.”
The firing occurred during a training code-named Exercise KerisMas. It involved 12 ships, a submarine, four Navy helicopters, four Royal Malaysia Airforce aircraft and two Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency watercraft, the admiral said.
About 3,000 personnel were involved in the exercise, which ran from July 1 to 18 and took place off Kuantan in Pahang state, the admiral said. Highlights featured the firing of Exocet MM40 Block II guided missiles from a ship and the Sea Skua guided missile from a helicopter.
Mohd Reza said the exercise was standard training and should not be seen as act of aggression.
“It is important to us that the Navy proves our capabilities to the public and to other countries in the region,” he said. “Apart from that, it shows that we are ready at the highest level to ensure our assets and weapons systems are functioning.”
In June, when the Chinese government announced it was carrying out two days of military training in the South China Sea, its defense minister warned that the country would “resolutely take action” to defend Beijing’s claims over the waterway.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, claimed that the Chinese had conducted missile tests from man-made structures near a disputed island-chain in the South China Sea at the end of June.
"The Pentagon was aware of the Chinese missile launch from the man-made structures in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands," Lt. Col. David Eastburn, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, was quoted as saying.
China claims most of the mineral-rich sea, which is home to some of the world’s most important international shipping lanes. Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
Retired Lt. Col. Ahmad Ghazali Abu Hassan, a security analyst, agreed with Mohd Reza that the exercise would not create tension in the maritime region. He said it would be foolish for Malaysia to try to pick a fight with China.
“As what our prime minister has said, we are not interested in conflict between superpowers. We are only upholding the sovereignty of our nation under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, where we will defend our waters at all cost.”
“The dispute between China is with the U.S., as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said ‘we will not get involved but we hope that it will not escalate further,’ as we want to keep the South China Sea a zone of peace and neutrality,” Ahmad Ghazali told BenarNews.
The government, he said, spent a lot of money during the exercise.
“It is expensive. Naval drills are the most expensive for the armed forces. One missile can cost close to a million ringgit (U.S. $243,000). If three missiles are launched, the cost is higher,” he said.
Ahmad Ghazali also revealed that Exocet MM40 missiles have been in the navy’s inventory since 2000.
“Each missile has its own expiry date. Like what they have in the inventory has reached years of age, therefore it is about time to use it as training,” he said.
Another security analyst, Lim Yew Ming of the University Malaysia Sabah, said China would not see the training as an act of aggression.
“It is a normal practice. I don’t see why China has to feel agitated because it is normal. China also carries out such training,” he told BenarNews. “Moreover, China has been less assertive towards us rather than to Vietnam or Philippines.”
Both analysts agreed that Malaysia regards China as a strong trade partner.
“Malaysia and China were very close during former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s time and the new government, although there was a bit of tension before this, have found a way to act amicably,” Lim said.
In the opinion of analyst Ahmad Ghazali, Malaysia has never sided with the U.S. or China against the other because the government knows what is at stake.
“Malaysia trades with China and the U.S. We are connected to the U.S. and China when it comes to trade, culture and tourism,” he said.
“We can’t simply take sides as it will only cost us more. As far as I am concerned, we have no trouble with either the Chinese or the U.S.”
Radzi Razak in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.