Thomas Daniel was quoted in South China Morning Post, 10 July 2024

  • Over half of Malaysia’s fleet is past its prime and vital replacements have been delayed, undermining its ability to secure vital sea lanes

By Hadi Azmi

Malaysia’s plans to replace its ageing naval fleet have stalled amid rampant mismanagement, a scathing government audit has revealed – highlighting the country’s growing reliance on the United States to bolster its maritime capabilities as regional tensions simmer.

The auditor-general’s report exposed a troubling reality: the Royal Malaysian Navy has received only four of its 18 planned new vessels, severely handicapping its ability to patrol the nation’s vast maritime domain, which spans over half a million 500,000 sq km, exceeding its land area.

“We do not possess a sufficient level of deterrence and this directly affects the strategic space and options that defence planners and policymakers have,” warned Thomas Daniel of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

The report’s revelations come amid heightened concerns over the South China Sea, where China’s expansive claims have put it at odds with Malaysia and other regional claimant states including the Philippines. Analysts warn that Malaysia’s naval shortcomings could leave it increasingly vulnerable as competition over the vital global trade route intensifies.

Malaysia’s naval woes run deep. The auditor’s damning report, published on July 4, found that half of the country’s fleet of 49 ships are now operating beyond their serviceable lifespan due to the non-delivery of 14 new vessels commissioned over the past decade.

These “delays in the acquisition and acceptance of new ships” were directly blamed in the report for the continued “use of ships that are beyond their useful life”. It also uncovered 384.5 million ringgit (US$81.6 million) in losses arising from more than 1.62 million unused spare parts that are no longer compatible with the country’s ships.

Despite Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s sharp criticism of US support for Israel’s war on Gaza and his administration’s perceived tilt towards China, including a push to join the Brics bloc, Washington continues to view Malaysia as a vital regional security partner.

A US$60 million maritime surveillance upgrade for three of the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s transport planes, outfitting them with the capability to pick up small targets as far as 200 nautical miles (370km) away, was recently completed under the US-led Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative.

Thanks to the upgrade, Malaysia is “better able to maintain vigilant watch” over its waters and “better postured to secure the maritime environment”, US Ambassador Edgard D. Kagan declared at the handover ceremony on June 17.

Washington has stepped in previously to bolster Malaysia’s maritime capabilities, including with the 2019 donation of 12 American-made ScanEagle drones to enhance its security and intelligence-gathering under the same security initiative.

Meanwhile the US Coast Guard is “moving forward with some sense of urgency” to donate a recently decommissioned 210-foot patrol boat to Malaysia, coastguard commandant Linda Fagan told Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama.

Malaysia’s leadership in this domain was “critical”, Fagan said in Kuala Lumpur on May 30, emphasising that the US coastguard was excited to share skills and opportunities with its Malaysian counterpart, which she described as “a useful partner of choice.”

The country’s ageing fleet has left major capability gaps, with ISIS Malaysia’s Thomas saying “Malaysia faces maritime security challenges in all its maritime areas” – not just the South China Sea.

Prime Minister Anwar admitted that Malaysia lacks the capacity to properly monitor its vast maritime areas in June, following Washington’s allegations that the country has become a hub for sanction-busting Iranian oil shipments to China.

“We do not have the capacity to observe or monitor” the alleged ship-to-ship transshipments of sanctioned oil, Anwar told an economic forum in Qatar.

This article first published in South China Morning Post, 10 July 2024

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