The recent incursions by Chinese coastguards into Malaysian waters underscored the need for radical changes to the Malaysian army, as threats from the sea have increased, a former Malaysian deputy defense minister said.
Liew Chin Tong said last week that Malaysia is mired in “jungle warfare” at a time when maritime threats are growing, with Chinese coastguard and navy vessels repeatedly trespassing in Malaysian waters, South China Morning Post reported.
“Alas, due to inertia, Malaysia too often acts as if jungle warfare is still the main form of conflict, concentrating security resources in Peninsular Malaysia, and colored by a land-based perspective,” Liew said at a webinar held in Singapore.
Liew, who served as deputy defense minister under Pakatan Harapan from 2018 to 2020, claimed that the government’s yearly allocation of 550 million ringgit ($131 million) to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency is “highly inadequate.”
The majority of the coastguard’s ships, donated by the navy and foreign donors, are dilapidated because the coastguard is unable to pay for the fuel used to operate the fleet, he said.
“A decently functioned coastguard would relieve the navy of some secondary roles, particularly in patrolling, and allow the navy to focus on its primary role, which is be prepared for war,” he remarked.
Malaysia has previously reported that Chinese coastguard and navy ships encroached into its territorial waters 89 times between 2016 to 2019 and often remained in the area even after being turned away by the Malaysian navy.
Liew pointed out that China’s incursions into Malaysian waters were made by its coastguards, not its navy, highlighting the importance of Malaysia having a “comparable coastguard” to counter Chinese coastguard incursions.
“It is therefore important that Malaysia has a comparable coastguard to respond with, rather than depend on the navy to respond to encroachment from other states,” he said.
These incursions occurred in the South China Sea, a highly contested region in which Beijing maintains claims to 90 percent of the sea based on its so-called “nine-dash line.”
The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan all have competing claims in the disputed sea.
Malaysia sent six diplomatic protests to China over encroachment in its waters, including one in 2017 in response to a Chinese note asserting its claim to the South Luconia Shoals, a fishing ground off the Malaysian state of Sarawak, the National Audit Department said in the report.
In October 2021, Malaysia summoned the Chinese ambassador to Kuala Lumpur to convey its protest against the “presence and activities of Chinese vessels” and a survey vessel in its exclusive economic zone off the coast of the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak.
“Malaysia’s consistent position and actions are based on international law, in defense of our sovereignty and sovereign rights in our waters. Malaysia had also protested against the previous encroachments by other foreign vessels into our waters,” the foreign ministry stated.
In 2020, another Chinese survey ship engaged in a month-long standoff with an oil exploration vessel contracted by Petronas within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. China later stated that the vessel was carrying out normal operations.
Reuters contributed to this report.