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Analysts: Malaysian Navy drill sends strong message to South China Sea claimants


Malaysia’s successful test-fire of three live anti-ship missiles in mid-August 2021 demonstrates its preparedness to deal with intrusions into its South China Sea territory, analysts said.

The Royal Malaysian Navy’s Taming Sari exercise was noteworthy because it was conducted following the intrusion of 16 Chinese military planes into Malaysia’s maritime airspace over the disputed South China Sea in May 2021, said Lai Yew Meng, a regional security analyst.

“There is indeed a need to visibly demonstrate, via exercises like the Taming Sari, Malaysia’s capabilities and national will to defend its sovereignty,” said Lai, an associate professor at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

“This is especially significant following the overflight that ostensibly almost encroached on Malaysian air space at the end of May,” he said. “Observers suggest that was a possible attempt by the Chinese military to test Malaysia’s combat readiness and operational capabilities.”

The six-day Taming Sari exercise, which ended August 12, was Malaysia’s first warfare drill since the pandemic began. It held similar drills in 2014 and 2019.

During the exercise, the Royal Malaysian Navy submarine KD Tun Razak successfully launched an Exocet SM39 anti-ship missile, while two Navy ships, the KD Lekiu and KD Lekir, each launched an Exocet MM40 guided missile.

The MM40 can hit targets up to 56 kilometers away, and the SM39 has a range of 35 kilometers.

The drill included nine ships, five fast combat boats, a submarine, two Super Lynx helicopters and four Royal Malaysian Air Force F/A-18D Hornet fighter jets, as well as Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency assets.

More than 1,000 members of Malaysia’s security forces participated in the exercise.

Lai said the exercise sends a strong signal, especially to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which claims almost all of the South China Sea, an assertion that was rejected as legally invalid by an international tribunal in 2016.

“A successful exercise would send a clear message across to other SCS [South China Sea] claimants, including China, that Malaysia is no pushover, and nor is it unprepared to use force, if absolutely necessary, to rebuke imminent external threats, despite the obvious power asymmetry vis-a-vis the likes of China,” Lai said.

On May 31, 2021, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft flew within 60 nautical miles of Kuala Lumpur-administered Beting Patinggi Ali — also known as Luconia Shoals — which Beijing also claims as part of its territory in the maritime region.

The incursion prompted Malaysia to scramble Hawk 20 combat jets from its Labuan airbase after the PLA aircraft failed to respond to local air traffic controllers.

Chinese coast guard ships since early June 2021 also have been harassing Malaysian oil and gas projects in the South China Sea off Sarawak state on Borneo Island, according to a July 2021 report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a United States-based think tank.

“It demonstrates again Beijing’s persistence in challenging its neighbors’ oil and gas activities within their own exclusive economic zones,” AMTI, a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in its report titled “Contest at Kasawari: Another Malaysian Gas Project Faces Pressure.” “And the air patrol [incursion], which was likely not a coincidence, suggests Beijing’s willingness to engage in parallel escalation to pressure other claimants to back down.”

The PRC’s widely rejected claims to the South China Sea include waters within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing also claims historic rights to parts of the sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ.

Also in August 2021, Malaysia participated in the annual exercise Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training with the U.S. and 20 other countries.

Lai said such multilateral exercises are an essential feature in Malaysia’s “hedging” policy. The strategy seeks to strengthen the country’s defense capabilities — via partnerships with traditional defense partners — against security threats and challenges amid geopolitical uncertainties in the region, he said. (Pictured: A Royal Malaysian Navy Super Lynx flies over the Royal Malaysian Navy Lekiu-class guided missile frigate KD Jebat during an exercise with the U.K. Carrier Strike Group in the South China Sea in July 2021.)

“Apart from being a deterrence to potential Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, such multilateral exercises involving the U.S. would certainly provide an additional sense of reassurance to regional states,” Lai said.



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