PETALING JAYA: A defence expert has backed Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah’s call for an expansion of Malaysia’s naval fleet in the South China Sea, saying the country’s defences need to keep up with China’s.
Aruna Gopinath, a former lecturer at the National Defence University, told FMT she would disagree with any suggestion that such an expansion meant militarisation of the South China Sea and a contradiction of the government’s new foreign policy framework.
The framework calls for the non-militarisation of the South China Sea and for the region to be a space of “peace, friendship and trade”.
Aruna said upgrades to naval vessels and other assets did not mean the government would not uphold the non-militarisation policy.
However, she added, “No country wants a conflict to occur first and to attend to any need after it might be too late. Saifuddin’s assessment is acceptable.”
During a recent question-and-answer session in the Dewan Rakyat, Saifuddin said Malaysia needed to be prepared to face any conflict in the region between major powers.
“We would not want it to happen, but our assets need be upgraded so we are able to better manage our waters,” he said.
He disclosed that Malaysia had placed boats to safeguard its waters but said they were fewer and smaller than those belonging to other countries.
He also said Chinese and US warships came as near as 50km from Malaysian territorial waters last year.
Malaysia would like to carry out closer monitoring, he added.
Aruna said Malaysia should prepare for any possibility of hostility from China, but added that any naval expansion would be futile without state-of-the-art facilities on the ships, such as facilities for the take-off and landing of planes.
She said Malaysian warships should be on par with those of other Southeast Asian countries, noting that nations such as Indonesia and Vietnam had bigger fleets with better facilities.
She added that human resources must also be well-equipped with the latest skills and knowledge.
She also called for the joining of forces among Asean countries in the South China Sea.
“We need to have a kind of consensus that we will work together in the region to prevent anything from any other country – say US or China – from coming into our waters,” she said.
She added that she believed there would be no serious disputes in the region if every country “knows its boundaries and limitations”.
Malaysia claims 12 territorial areas in the Spratly archipelago. These claims are all rejected by China.