This article was first published in The CSCAP regional security outlook (CRSO) 2021 annual publication.
Building on key developments throughout 2019, 2020 promised to be an exciting and perhaps transformative year for Malaysia’s defence and regional security outlook. Domestically, 2019 saw the preparation, tabling and adoption of Malaysia’s first ever Defence White Paper (DWP), which looked set to be implemented from 2020 onward. On the regional front, Malaysia’s approach toward the evolving strategic security environment was further bolstered by a new anchor – the ASEAN’s Outlook in the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) that was adopted at the 2019 ASEAN Summit in Bangkok.
Predictably, the onset and continued ravages of the COVID-19 global pandemic has significantly impacted these considerations, and more importantly, the resources notionally earmarked to pursue them. A change of political leadership has also spelled possible changes, though it remains a distant second to the impact of the pandemic.
Within that context, this paper will cover the three major issues that have impacted Malaysia’s 2020 regional security outlook. First, the adoption and possible future of the DWP. Second, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly on border security and the increased demands being placed on the security forces. Third, this paper will look at a longstanding security consideration for Malaysia –the South China Sea (SCS) dispute and how it is increasingly being subsumed within major power competition.
The Defence White Paper
The DWP was adopted in December 2019 and sought to engage a broad range of stakeholders – including the public – on defence, evaluate the evolving security environment and explore how Malaysia could enhance its defence readiness and resilience. It was far from a perfect product. The DWP remained vague on force structure, budgetary and timeframe issues that have long plagued Malaysian defence planning. There was no overt mention of Malaysia’s sense of threat perception, or how to go about dealing with them.
Nevertheless, the DWP was ground-breaking in terms of how inclusive, whole-of-government and whole-of-society its formative processes were. This marked a departure from prior, generally opaque decision-making norms. The DWP firmly called for a more accountable and rationalised acquisition process, and sought to take some tentative, initial steps to restructure the local defence industry – long plagued by corruption and inefficiency – in the name of the ‘national interest’.
Relevant to Malaysia’s regional security outlook is how the then policy planners perceived the country in strategic terms – as a “maritime nation with continental roots”, whose geographic placement has allowed it to be a “bridging linchpin” between the Indian and Pacific Oceans through the Strait of Melaka and South China Sea. Besides the challenges and opportunities such placement brought, the DWP also argued that Malaysia ought to position self as a regional middle power.
A political realignment in February-March 2020 saw the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition and the newly cobbled together Perikatan Nasional assume executive and legislative power. While the DWP is generally considered significantly less of a political document than the Foreign Policy Framework of the New Malaysia, questions have been raised about the viability of the DWP as a guiding document for Malaysia’s defence and regional security outlook under new political leadership.
Current Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, on his first day in the job in March 2020, reaffirmed the importance of the DWP as a primary reference for the Ministry of Defence in its short, medium and long term planning. Further statements have indicated that supplementary studies might be commissioned to address some of the perceived shortcomings of the DWP. Additionally, the emphasis on maritime security, particularly domain awareness, has been followed up on with an announcement on upcoming tenders for the acquisition of desperately needed maritime patrol aircraft and medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial drones. This adds to several transport aircraft that are undergoing conversion for maritime surveillance roles, under the United States funded Maritime Security Initiative.
Moreover, in terms of its regional security outlook, Malaysia’s longstanding mantra of non-alignment, shared security and a preference for inclusive cooperation was reemphasised in the DWP. This aspect of how Malaysia views its defence priorities and posturing within the ambit of regional security is unlikely to change, no matter who the policymakers are. Any significant departure will probably be externally driven, that is, in circumstances where Malaysia finds itself being forced into drastic reactions.
Nevertheless, given that the attention of the Defence Ministry and its Minister have been more focused on supporting the nation’s response to the pandemic (see below ), the ultimate fate of the DWP simply remains unknown. Despite statements to the contrary, given the history of a lack of continuity of trademark policies in Malaysia, it remains something for observers to keep an eye on.
COVID-19 and Border Security
As a part of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the defence sector, particularly the military, was utilised on a scale not seen in Malaysia for a long time. Troops were deployed to assist in movement restrictions, logistics and the setting up of field hospitals to alleviate pressure on public hospitals inundated with patients in COVID-19 hotspots. The latter was seen especially in Sabah where the healthcare system came under tremendous strain after being hit with a third, more infection wave of COVID-19, from September 2020. Military personnel also assisted the police, immigration and other local authorities in some high profile raids targeting illegal migrants.
The military has also significantly stepped up border patrols from March 2020, especially at sea and in coastal areas to address the risk of illegal immigrants seeking to enter the country. There was, and remains, a wide spread belief, based on the state of infections in neighbouring countries, that the unauthorised entry of these groups would present a significant health risk to Malaysia. In the months of April-May 2020, this led to several highly publicised turnbacks of boats filled with Rohingya refugees headed for Malaysia. A more comprehensive response, called Operasi Benteng was launched in late May 2020.
The impact of these developments has been twofold. First, the increased deployment of the military have demanded a commitment of significant human, technical, planning and fiscal resources. This has severely impacted the ability of the military to maintain the same level of engagement in other key priority areas. The significant economic cost of this pandemic will also see further cuts in defence acquisition and development plans. Defence spending has never been a priority in Malaysia, where it falls low in the pecking order against competing economic and political priorities for the national purse. Even orders for assets deemed to be of critical importance, like maritime patrol aircraft and drones, have been split to tranches and reduced in number.
Second, the Defence Minister is also the Senior Minister in charge of security matters and the government’s de-facto lead minister for pandemic management in Malaysia. This dual role has seen one of the key policymakers on matters of defence and security more focused on leading the response to COVID-19. While this is certainly understandable, given the immediate national and political significance of the pandemic, the inevitable consequence has been a noticeable decline in significant engagements on strategic and defence related matters. Even the obligatory calls with his key counterparts have tended to focus more on the impact of the pandemic. Interestingly, this has seen another key player in Malaysia’s regional outlook and formulation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, play a more visible role in formulating and driving the conversation on Malaysia’s perspectives on key regional security developments.
The South China Sea Dispute and Major Power Competition
The SCS dispute remains a major security concern for Malaysia, with its strategic wiggle room further narrowing throughout 2020. The Chinese Coast Guard maintains a near permanent presence off Luconia Shoals. The operationalisation of China’s reclaimed – now militarised – features figuratively halves the operating distance of Chinese maritime and aerial assets that used to be based in Hainan. Constant incursions by its maritime militia and fishing fleets continues, with Malaysia having no effective means of deterrence.
China’s aggressive reaction against the Petronas-contracted West Cappella exploration activities in May indicates the possibility that any future Malaysian hydrocarbon activities in the SCS now come with a vastly increased level of risk. Malaysia also suffers the collateral spill over of Indonesia significantly militarising the Natuna Islands in response to its rising perception of a threat from China.
Yet the lack of options doesn’t equate to inaction on the part of Malaysia. Malaysia has taken a more proactive ‘lawfare’ approach in reinforcing claims in the SCS, highlighting the importance of international law in resolving disputes and the explicit rejection of China’s nine-dash-line. Despite its preference for quiet diplomacy, Malaysia’s diplomats have ensured that efforts by some member states in ASEAN to minimise the dispute do not go unopposed, and that principles of international law remain included in the Code of Conduct negotiations.
However, the fact that the SCS dispute is becoming a more significant element in the broader US-China geopolitical dynamic, is a serious concern for Malaysia. This risks the escalation of the dispute beyond the control of the claimant states, and has further impacted the centrality and unity of ASEAN. Several statements issued by Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein from July to September have indicated Malaysia’s worry of being “dragged and trapped” within this evolving dynamic. While it has its backers, the approach by the US under the Trump Administration toward engagement with ASEAN member states have raised genuine worries that it is the US and not China that might be forcing ASEAN member states to make a choice.
This sentiment reflects a deeper instinct in influential segments of Malaysian policymakers, thinkers and practitioners – that while the US is the only power capable of confronting China in the SCS, its actions have and will ultimately lead to higher costs for ASEAN claimant states and the regional organisation as a whole. This might explain the apparent reluctance to openly criticise China over the SCS dispute, and less vacillation when it comes highlighting how the US has contributed to the growing tensions. Much to the chagrin of the latter.
An important fact to keep in mind in examining Malaysia’s engagement with major powers, especially in an era of geopolitical tussles, is the importance of trade. A major foundation of Malaysia’s economic growth, its trade-to-GDP ratio has never dipped below 120 percent this decade. The security of Malaysia’s trade routes, and the wider regional environment has been paramount to Malaysia’s bilateral and multilateral engagements. While Malaysia cannot unilaterally influence major power dynamics, it will work within multilateral frameworks, with like-minded countries, to maintain a peaceful atmosphere conducive to that trade. Trade will also be vital to the post-pandemic economic recovery, regardless of the patterns of trade that will constitute the new normal. Thus, prioritising external engagements, and indeed choices, based on trade and economic growth will be a key factor that also influences Malaysia’s regional security outlook.
The disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t so much transformed as shaken up Malaysia’s security concerns, regional or otherwise. The shakeup has laid bare many of the longstanding challenges that Malaysia faces in its security outlook and added further layers of complexity. Moving forward, Malaysia continues to face challenges on both the traditional and emerging security concerns.
What is important for policymakers to keep in mind is that proactive-ness, rather than reactiveness, should be the order of the day. This is essential both in terms of planning for its emerging and evolving security challenges, as well as taking stock of its multilateral options with likeminded countries, as the international order careens further into one that is hinged on major power competition rather than international cooperation.