IN the name of shared prosperity and regional peace, the Malaysian Armed Forces are out to complete a mission.
To achieve regional peace and stability, the Defence Ministry is seeking maritime cooperation from other Asean countries to fight against rising foreign intrusion, terrorism and piracy that have cost huge financial losses in the region.
This was revealed at a Perwira Dialogue 2020 organised by the Malaysian Institute of Defence and Security in Kuala Lumpur with the theme “Malaysia’s inaugural Defence White Paper: Ideas and Implementation”.
The White Paper is meant to be the country’s 10-year policy plan for defence and national security, structured not only to deal with natural disasters and terrorism threats, but also geopolitical risks stemming from tensions between the United States and China that have spilled over to an ongoing regional dispute over islands in the South China Sea.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$3.4 trillion worth of goods are transported annually, under its unilaterally declared “nine-dash-line”.
The world power has also territorial claims overlap with those made by Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.
Malaysia has said it needs to boost its naval capabilities to prepare for possible conflict in the South China Sea between the two major powers.
The country also wants regional stability via partnership programmes with its neighbours, as this will help Asean as a whole to stay peaceful and attract tourists to Malaysia and other Asean nations.
The White Paper, which contains strategies for regional cooperation, became the focus of keen discussion among experts and Asean defence officials at the recent forum.
This discussion was seen as timely as Malaysia and the region are facing rising threats.
Rise in South China Sea tension
Tension in South China Seas has continued to escalate in recent months, with American warships sailing near various islands claimed by China, amid US allegations of excessive Chinese territorial claims in the region.
In the last few months, there were also standoffs between China and two Asean nations over overlapping territorial claims.
Amid these developments, Malaysia saw the need to raise budget for its defence ministry in 2020 by 12.2% to RM15.6bil, from RM13.9bil in 2019.
The White Paper has outlined ambitious plans and strategies to improve and enhance its armed forces and the broader defence sector.
However, these border issues have been bothering not only Malaysia but also many countries in Asean.
The White Paper has three pillars of defence strategy: concentric deterrence, comprehensive defence and credible partnerships.
Among the pillars, credible partnerships have attracted attention from all the armed forces in the region.
For this reason, the Malaysian Institute of Defence and Security (MiDAS) held the dialogue with the theme “Malaysia’s Inaugural Defence White Paper: Ideas and Implementation”.
The forum had attracted participation from Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Myanmar, Loas, Cambodia and Brunei.
Speakers from Malaysia, Australia, Brunei, Vietnam and Indonesia were also invited to share their views on cooperation between the countries in the Asean region.
The dialogue was very important to Asean nations because over the years, trillions of ringgit have reportedly been lost through piracy, foreign intrusion and terrorism.
The dialogue also noted that the lack of close cooperation among nations at borders has resulted in the growth of shadow economy. This is undermining the tax revenue of countries in the region.
For Malaysia, its shadow economy is estimated to be at RM300bil or 21% of GDP. This means the country has lost billions of tax income every year.
In developing countries, it is estimated that the shadow economy accounts for about 36% of GDP, with the size ranging between 13% and 50% in Asia. And for the record, it’s 25% to 60% in South America.
Malaysia, for its part, believes that building up a credible partnership among Asean nations could cultivate better defensive strength for all the countries in this region.
At the dialogue, the head of Malaysian Defence Forces Tan Sri Affendi Buang briefed participants the White Paper has set up strategic orientations for defence in the next 10 years.
It underscores Malaysian government’s commitment to pursue the three pillars of the defence strategy.
Cross-border crimes in focus
Malaysia says it needs to focus on dealing with non-traditional security issues like terrorism, piracy and maritime security, cyber crime, security and trans-national crimes, as well as apply modern technologies in defence.
But Malaysia believes its armed forces will do much better with the help from their neighbours. This view was shared by army officials at the dialogue.
Deputy Director of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies under the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Tran Viet Thai, said Asean countries must realise they have to work together “in all manners”, especially in maritime defence.
He added strong maritime cooperation can help the nations of this region “to get better income”.
“Vietnam and Malaysia should increase information sharing, personnel training and patrols, as well as multilateral cooperation. I also emphasise Asean’s importance in safeguarding security, along with ensuring peace, stability and development in South-East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, ” said Tran.
Tran added that having a strong working relationship among the armies of the Asean countries assures that all the countries will have to deal with fewer painful perennial problems.
“We must work hand-in-hand to overcome smuggling, drug issues, terrorism which are creeping into this part of the world. Kidnapping and piracy incidents are also rampant in our seas, ” said Tran.
The meeting also deliberated on continuing encroachment by foreign military and paramilitary vessels near islands in the South China Sea.
Although the origin of foreign vessels was not identified, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has reported that Chinese Coast Guard vessels have maintained a regular presence in South-East Asia seas.
Speaker Asyura Salleh from Brunei, a consultant with Global Awareness and Impact Alliance agreed with Tran and said that it is essential for countries in this region to work together.
“Good working relationship also ensures success and prosperity in many areas especially in this region.” she said.
Enhancing Sabah defence
On Malaysia’s plan for improvement in the security of East Malaysia, Indonesia’s representative noted his country needs to tackle maritime and border problems too.
In ensuring the country is free from foreign threats, Malaysia has enhanced Sabah defence and safety through patrols done under trilateral maritime patrol, trilateral air patrol and maritime air patrol. It has also increased cyber security.
Until recently, the waters off Sabah have been hot spots for kidnapping for years.
“With better cooperation, much of the defence budget can be saved and put to better use, ” said Evan Laksmana, a senior researcher for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.
“The maritime domain will be the top priority for all the Asean countries against those who intend to give us trouble, ” he added.
At the dialogue, Malaysia’s Affendi said a lot has to be done in improving Malaysian defence and also establishing better ties of the armies in this region.
One must understand the Malaysian Armed Forces is not only operating in challenging and complex times, but it is also facing competing budgetary priorities, ageing assets and the rise of non-traditional security challenges.
“While Malaysia upholds the principle of ‘prosper-thy-neighbour’ policy that is in line with principles of Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality or Zopfan, a revolution in military affairs is indeed crucial for armed forces to remain relevant and efficient, ” said Gen Affendi.
He added apart from Asean partners, Malaysia also intends to work with arm forces from Australia, New Zealand and others in the Indian Ocean.
“At the end of the day, it is the armed forces’ duty to defend the nation and its strategic interests against external aggression and to support the civil authorities in maintaining internal security, ” said Affendi.
Tim Huxley, the executive director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Asia, agreed that cooperation in maritime and armed capabilities will ensure the safety of the region.
That will in turn strengthen the finance of the countries and protect the people’s wealth in these countries.
“You must also agree that the defence White Papers of countries will help the armed forces and their governments to strengthen friendships with other nations, ” said Huxley.
He added to build a credible group of armed forces, the country must enhance the Armed Forces’ readiness to conduct any mission at any time. It also strengthened national water security control via an integrated operation with foreign agencies.
To enhance the local defence industry, Mindef also introduced five transfer of technology programmes. It also registered four defence industry products as intellectual property as part of commercialising defence products.
It also increased cyber security by developing the National Cyber Security Policy, and cyber and electromagnetic activities.
Two-way and multiple-way exercises were conducted to strengthen defence diplomacy ties with other countries.
Two-way exercises include Tiger Strike exercise between Malaysia and the United States, and Semangat Bersatu Exercise (Malaysia-Singapore). Meanwhile, multilateral exercises comprise Bersama Lima Exercise (Malaysia/Five Power Defence Arrangements) and Pacific Partnership Exercise (Malaysia/US/Pacific Islands countries).
Affendi said Malaysia strongly advocates defence diplomacy with its regional neighbours via bilateral and multilateral engagements.
On the benefits of the DWP, he said it would fulfil the vision of defending Malaysia as a secure, sovereign and prosperous nation.
Did you find this article insightful?