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Defending Our Five Islands in the South China Sea

Though modest compared with China, Vietnam and the Philippines have been beefing up its air and maritime defence.

The Vietnamese have been rapidly developing the West Reef and Sin Cowe Islands in the South China Sea (SCS) for the past two years.

According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, three types of emplacements is noticed consisting of anti-air and coastal defence capabilities — West Reef and Sin Cowe Islands has mobile coastal defense artillery systems — this prepares Vietnam to build a stance against Beijing.

A Reuters report in 2016 shows that Vietnam has deployed extra artillery rocket systems, recently acquired from Israel. The small size of these systems would enable quick and discreet deployment.

In the case of the Philippines, Thitu Island being the largest developed, is occupied by approximately 100 civilians and the island is secured by a small number of military personnel. The Philippine Air Force has acquired and fielding of the navy’s brand-new guided-missile frigate and the air force’s fourth-generation FA-50 fighter aircraft.

China, on the other hand, has installed radar and communications arrays, airstrips and hangars for combat aircraft, and surface-to-air and anti-ship cruise missile systems. Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross Reef are militarised, a close proximity of about 450km to Malaysian-administered Luconia Shoals. Woody Island has the most expansion with harbours and airbase and is operating as a control station to monitor its nearby islands.

Similar approaches should be adopted by Malaysia at its claimed islands. A key recommendation is to develop its offshore station at five Malaysian occupied islands in SCS that is Swallow Reef (Station Lima), Ardasier Reed (Station Uniform), Mariveles Reef (Station Mike), Erica Reef (Station Sierra), and Investigator Shoal (Station Papa).

Besides doing regular maintenances, limited developments has taken place at these offshore stations. These stations are manned by small number of military personnel with basic weaponries and defence system.

Let us not forget that in today’s context, as much as war dynamics and naval battles have changed with the advent of diplomacy, the Westphalian system is still relevant when it comes to defending state’s national interest. State sovereignty remains priority despite cordial friendship with any nation.

There is a huge territorial implication and in the long run it can dilute Malaysia’s maritime territory and integrity. What are we going to do about the continuous aggression and unauthorised presence at our waters? China have resorted to both maritime and air power as a tool in SCS. Malaysia needs to be prepared in SCS, especially when airborne encounters come without warning.

Ageing assets, limited capabilities and underdeveloped defence will never give Malaysia the upper hand in asserting its claims at SCS. The security intensity in SCS explicitly shows that the key to success for a steadfast defence layer in SCS rests on lMalaysia’s ability to develop its five islands in terms of infrastructure, platform sensors, air and maritime surveillance system and acquiring advance assets.

It is crucial to develop a good set of defence in this area as these five islands are the key strategic location in affirming Malaysia’s claims at SCS, as well as to protect our military personnel and territory during crisis. After all other claimants’ states are doing the same.

Malaysia has been very diplomatic, thus far. In the context of international relations and small state foreign policy, this approach vis-à-vis China is understandable. Moreover, with some of the claimants being our neighbours, it is important to ensure that we do not antagonise them.

But, one should realise that China is at the epicentre of the SCS dispute and highly unclear how it would resolve the disputes amicably without compromising its core interest. The tone of Malaysian foreign minister has changed this time when he summoned China’s ambassador to provide explanation of this air intrusion. But, the aptitude of the issue is far greater than sending diplomatic note.

We need to strengthen our own defence in facing vexing problem of being intimidated time to time at our own backyard. It is our prerogative and simply means developing our own defence against any possible aggressor. ‘Be firm or risk losing out’. It is therefore time to catch ‘up’.

By Dr Tharishini Krishnan
June 17, 2021 @ 12:00am

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