MELBOURNE, Australia — Malaysia has unveiled its first-ever defense whitepaper, identifying its maritime claims in the South China Sea as a top concern, amid a stagnant budget that continues to dog attempts at modernizing its military.
Tabling the document in Malaysia’s Parliament, Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu said the whitepaper is an opportunity to discuss the Southeast Asian nation’s strategic outlook.
Unsurprisingly, ongoing tension between the U.S. and China received attention in the minister’s speech, where he noted that competition between both powers over technological, maritime and other issues were likely to intensify in the future, despite there being areas for cooperation.
He also highlighted continuing encroachment by foreign military and paramilitary vessels near islands and features in the South China Sea to which Malaysia claims ownership. He did not identify the origin of the foreign vessels, although the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has reported that Chinese Coast Guard vessels have maintained a regular presence at Luconia Shoals.
In addition to security issues brought on by the occasional spillover of separatist and extremist insurgencies in the southern Philippines, the minister said Malaysia’s armed forces will continue to plan for improvements in the security of eastern Malaysia. The maritime domain will be the top priority, he added..
Opposition lawmakers have criticized the whitepaper for lacking detail. Hishammuddin Hussein, who served as defense minister in the former government and was voted out of office in a shock result last year, pointed out that Malaysia’s ongoing defense procurement programs were initiated by the former government.
In response, the minister said Malaysia will release a separate document outlining its procurement priorities, although he gave timeline. He also said he will call for an increase in Malaysia’s defense budget, although Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng has since clarified that any increase will be dependent on how the country’s economy performs.
Malaysia’s defense procurement plans have been derailed in recent years by the country’s continuing budget problems, with little funding cleared for equipment recapitalization. This has led to projects like the purchase of maritime patrol aircraft being put on ice.
In late November, the defense minister said Malaysia intends to lease transport helicopters as a stopgap measure following the grounding of its aging Sikorsky S-61 Sea King helicopters. However, neither details on the type of helicopter to be leased nor tender documents have been issued.
The minister also said Malaysia is considering an offer from Russia to take back Malaysia’s retired MiG-29 jets and replace them with newer MiG-35 fighters, although such a move would face obstacles from CAATSA, or Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act — a law passed by the U.S. Congress that imposes sanctions on countries that conduct business transactions with adversary countries such as Russia or North Korea.
The defense whitepaper has only been circulated among Malaysia’s members of Parliament. It received approval late Monday after a full day of debate. It will now be further refined, and an executive summary will be released later this week, with a full document to follow by early next year.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.