Monday, February 16, 2015

Malaysia eyes sub base expansion near South China Sea

By Prashanth Parameswaran/The Diplomat
On January 25, Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced that Malaysia would look to equip its naval base close to the South China Sea with an air defense system.
Hishammuddin made the announcement during a visit to the base, known as the RMN Kota Kinabalu, as part of a three-day working trip to the country’s east to examine its military preparedness. He said that the base required an advanced air defense system to ensure its protection.
The need to enhance the base’s defenses is understandable. The RMN Kota Kinabalu is the only base with the facilities to host the Royal Malaysian Navy’s (RMN’s) two prized Scorpene-class submarines. Malaysia’s naval capabilities have also been increasingly stretched. The country, which is surrounded by strategic sea lanes and is heavily dependent on seaborne trade, faces a range of challenges to secure its interests, as Hishammuddin himself pointed out, including the South China Sea disputes, the Islamic State and the security situation in Sabah.
While he was predictably silent on the specifics of those challenges, close observers know what they are. The 2013 invasion of Sabah by Filipino militants – known as the Lahad Datu incident – followed by a series of 2014 kidnappings involving Chinese nationals there, have revealed Malaysia’s vulnerability in the east. Meanwhile, rising incursions from China into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea have exposed the country’s naval limitations. The threat of the Islamic state also looms large. Having any of these threats disrupt Malaysia’s ASEAN chairmanship year would be a disaster, particularly as it prepares to usher in the ASEAN Community with great fanfare.
While the move is clearly part of a broader effort to harden the country’s defenses against these threats, Hishammuddin was coy on specifics. He said more – including which systems might be used – would be forthcoming later. But when exactly is still not clear. That matters because it would determine where it fits within Malaysia’s spending plans over the next few years. Other issues also remain unresolved, including how much of a priority this is relative to other much-needed military upgrades which have previously been put off for various reasons.

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