Japanese, Malaysian coast guards hold South China Sea security drill
The Japan Coast Guard in mid-January 2023 concluded security drills to train its Malaysian counterpart on how to repel intruders in the disputed South China Sea where Beijing has grown increasingly assertive against other claimant states.
The four-day exercise marked the first time Malaysia was trained in using long-range acoustic devices, called sound cannons, said Saiful Lizan Ibrahim, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency’s (MMEA) deputy director of logistics.
“The drill was conducted to train the officers and members on how to use the device and also to test its effectiveness against foreign ships, especially the ones that intrude into the country’s waters,” Saiful said in a statement. “It is to be used to chase away intruder ships that refuse to cooperate or the ones that are acting aggressively toward us.”
Sound cannons can be used to communicate across vast distances. They are an upgrade from Malaysia’s current devices.
The Japanese government contributed four sound cannons to Malaysia. The devices will be mounted on the maritime agency’s offshore patrol boats, Saiful said.
“Southeast Asia has sea lanes vital to Japan. We will continue to support nations in the region so that they can better ensure maritime safety,” Japan Coast Guard official Tamura Makoto told the Tokyo public broadcaster NHK.
Unlike Malaysia, Japan is not a direct party to the South China Sea dispute with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but is an interested stakeholder given the waterway’s importance to its energy imports and other trade.
Japan is locked in a dispute with the PRC in the East China Sea, particularly over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as its territory.
Beijing also claims almost the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, as well as parts of the sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ.
It continues to ignore a 2016 international arbitration court ruling won by Manila that invalidated the PRC’s vast claims in the South China Sea.
Chinese coast guard and navy ships intruded into Malaysian waters in the South China Sea 89 times between 2016 and 2019, according to a 2020 report by Kuala Lumpur. The ships lingered until being turned away by the Royal Malaysian Navy.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have accused the PRC of disrupting their oil and gas exploration with frequent incursions by Chinese coast guard and maritime militia ships, leading to confrontations.
All such activities by Beijing are “viewed from Japan’s perspective as part of a single strategy by China intended to weaken the territorial claims and control of other states in the area and establish its own control,” according to an October 2022 research paper by Dr. David Envall, a fellow in Asia-Pacific affairs at Australian National University.
Japan faces similar gray-zone tactics — “attempts at coercion that fall just below what is considered an ‘armed attack’” — in the East China Sea, Envall wrote.
As with Malaysia, Japan is enhancing ties with Indonesia and the Philippines.
The MMEA has supplemented its maritime patrol, emergency response and enforcement resources with assistance from partners including Australia and Japan, said Hoo Chiew Ping, a senior lecturer in strategic studies and international relations at the National University of Malaysia. (Pictured: A Japan Coast Guard ship and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency helicopters conduct a joint exercise off Kuantan, Malaysia, in 2018.)
“Thus, the acoustic devices to be provided by Japan will increase MMEA’s detection capability and provide a warning system to our fishermen to reduce the risks of maritime clash or confrontation with foreign vessels in our waters,” she said
The joint drills with Japan will likely draw Beijing’s disapproval, said Shahriman Lockman, a director at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies. “At the same time, China must surely understand at some level that Malaysia needs to build the capacity to defend itself.”
Lockman noted the persistent Chinese presence in Malaysia’s EEZ in the South China Sea.
“China’s presence has become the new normal and is usually shadowed by Malaysian government vessels,” he said. “There are occasional tensions, but these seem to be moderated and kept under control.”
IMAGE CREDIT: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS