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Strengthening Military Assets Vital

AS a maritime nation, the area of South China Sea is the biggest maritime flashpoint for Malaysia.

The recent air intrusion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force paints not only a good picture of the continuous and expanded threat from China, but also points to a sore need for the government to improve air and maritime defence in the South China Sea. It is evident that the Chinese Coast Guard and PLA Navy have frequently flexed their muscles in Malaysian waters.

This time it is by air. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) has confirmed that 16 Chinese aircrafts were detected by radar near the coast of Sarawak.

The aircraft were flying in tactical formation towards Beting Patinggi Ali, forcing the RMAF to scramble two Hawks from the Labuan Air Base to intercept them. Two of the 16 aircraft were intercepted after they encroached into the Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region and were identified as the PLA Air Force’s Ilyushin Il-76 and Xian Y-20. After the interception, the PLA Air Force formation turned back north approximately 60 nautical miles off Miri.

Following this clear violation of Malaysian airspace and sovereignty, it is time to recalibrate our strategy. There should be no compromise on defence development and operational budgets when it comes to national security.

Malaysia has made efforts to acquire six maritime patrol aircraft and nine medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles under the RMAF CAP55 plan. But after the procurement of 18 Sukhoi-30 MKM fighters in the late 2000s, nothing much has been done to acquire new fighter aircraft.

The light combat aircraft project is progressing slowly and multi-role combat aircraft plans have been postponed. The Hawk Mk-108/208 is on the verge of obsolescence with limited air-to-air capabilities and there are only 26 multi-role combat aircraft — F/A-18D and Su-30MKM — to defend the vast Malaysian skies.

Malaysia has been granted 12 ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles from the United States that will be completed in 2022. Three CN-235 transport aircraft from Indonesia will be converted into maritime patrol platforms using US funding.

But more needs to be done in asset acquisition, infrastructure and system development considering the gravity of threats in the South China Sea.

While the RMAF successfully tracked the PLA Air Force this time, in future such missions would face significant challenges if defence capability developments are not given attention.

Beting Patinggi Ali, also known as Luconia Shoals, has been a central focus for China. Named after a key Malay leader in Sarawak from the early 19th century, it is situated in the Malaysian Economic Exclusive Zone, 155km off Miri and south of the Spratly Islands.

The 200 nautical miles claim by Malaysia adheres to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that allows special rights to explore and use marine resources. This area has extensive oil and natural gas resources under the seabed that are unexplored, which has been the main reason for China’s ‘expensive’ interest in the area even though it is 2,000km from mainland China.

On June 4, a few days after the air intrusion, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency received a report that a Chinese Coast Guard vessel was spotted near Beting Patinggi Ali, giving Malaysia little time to breathe after the air intrusion. It is highly possible that the recent air intrusion arose from the tension between China and Malaysia after Petronas began energy exploration activities in Sarawak last year.

Known as the Kasawari gas development, the project is expected to bring substantial annual growth to the oil, gas and energy sector in the country. China might have been trying to demonstrate its tactical airlift capabilities and test Malaysia’s air defence capabilities as well as political willingness to respond in protecting its rights in the South China Sea.

According to a New Straits Times report dated July 24 last year, the Chinese Coast Guard and PLA Navy intruded into Malaysian waters 89 times between 2016 and 2019.

The recent air intrusion was not a one-off occurrence, only that this time it made the news because of the huge number of aircraft. This because this is a clear threat to both Malaysia’s maritime zone and airspace.

By Dr Tharishini Krishnan
June 16, 2021 @ 12:37am

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