The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) is creating a marine corps and establishing a new naval base in the South China Sea near waters it disputes with China, IHS Jane’s reported this week, citing a press release from Defense Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein.
According to the defense minister’s statement, the new naval base will be built in Bintulu on the South China Sea (SCS) for the explicit purpose of protecting nearby waters and oil reserves. As Jane’s points out, however, the base will be located just 60 miles from the James Shoal, an area in the South China Sea claimed by both Malaysia and China.
Back in March a PLA amphibious task force conducted a large naval exercise in the James Shoal.
“It is not just a few ships here and there, but a crack amphibious landing ship carrying marines and hovercraft and backed by some of the best escort ships in the PLAN fleet,” Gary Li, a senior analyst with IHS Fairplay, told Asian Correspondent at the time.
“We've never seen anything like this that far south in terms of quantity or quality … it is hard to know whether it is just coincidence, but it does seem to reflect [President] Xi Jinping's desire for more practical operationally based exercises,” Li added.
IHS Jane’s said that establishment of the Marine Corps will be partly used to deal with Sulu militants who have caused unrest in Sabah in eastern Malaysia. The Marine Corps will be drawn from Malaysia’s existing services as the overall size of the armed forces is capped. It has not been determined which of the services the Marine Corps will fall under.
IHS Jane’s said that Malaysia will rely on the expertise of the U.S. Marines Corps (USMC) to help develop the new Marine force.
“Malaysia is keen to draw on the USMC's expertise and has been in discussions with the United States (US) over support, training and expertise exchange,” the report said.
Initially, the Malaysian marine corps will lack an amphibious naval platform as the RMN’s only amphibious ship, the Newport-class landing ship-tank KD Sri Inderapura, was destroyed in a fire in 2009. It is currently in discussions with both France and South Korea over acquiring a landing platform deck (LPD). The U.S. has also offered Malaysia the LPD USS Denver after it decommissions it in 2014. U.S.-based defense companies are also discussing selling Malaysia the AH-1Z Super Cobra attack helicopters.
Malaysia’s decision to establish a naval base in the South China Sea is in line with other Southeast Asian nations that are locked in territorial disputes with China over the waters. As The Diplomat reported last week, the Philippines is creating a new naval base on Oyster Bay, Palawan Island. Vietnam is similarly expanding its Cam Ranh Bay naval base and offering foreign navies greater access to it.