No, Malaysia Would Never Host a US Spy Base

The notion that Malaysia may offer the U.S. Navy a base for surveillance aircraft is laughable.

No, Malaysia Would Never Host a US Spy Base
Credit: U.S. Navy Photo/Released

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on the Center for International Maritime Security’s Next War blog, and is reprinted here with CIMSEC’s kind permission.

There’s been a fair amount of reports on U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert’s supposed remarks that Malaysia is offering a base in east Malaysia for U.S. Navy P-8s. Despite the U.S. Navy clarifying his remarks and claiming he’d been quoted out of a context, the “base offer” was too good a story for the U.S. media to pass on. Unfortunately, many of the reports miss the dynamics of how U.S.-Malaysia military cooperation actually works, as anyone familiar with Malaysian security policy would find the notion of Malaysia allowing the United States to regularly stage surveillance missions from its airbases laughable.

The fact is, except under the ambit of the Five Power Defense Arrangement, all of Malaysia’s foreign military cooperation activities must be agreed to on a case-by-case basis. That is, at a minimum, the United States would have to ask for Malaysia’s approval for every deployment. It might be hard for anyone outside of defense circles in Malaysia to accept, but Malaysia’s military cooperation activities are conducted on an ad-hoc basis and often based on opportunities provided by a deployment that takes place close to or in the vicinity of Malaysia.

For instance, last year when the U.S.S. Boxer was transiting through the Malacca Straits with no engagement activity or exercises with Malaysia planned, the United States offered to fly Malaysian military and defense officials via V-22 Ospreys to the ship to see U.S. Marines’ capabilities onboard and engage in briefings and discussions, an offer which Malaysia accepted. Similarly, in June last year, when the French LPD F.N.S. Tonnerre was on a deployment tour in the region, France put in a request to Malaysia’s Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ) for an amphibious landing exercise but JFHQ declined, saying it was tied up with the ongoing CARAT 2013 exercise with the United States. It did refer the French to the Malaysian Army Headquarters who could accommodate the request.

These two examples illustrate that Malaysia’s military cooperation activities with other countries are often on an ad-hoc basis, rather than occurring as part of a highly formalized arrangement. As Malaysia wishes to preserve its ambit of neutrality, any activity has to be offered in such a manner so that Malaysia can decide whether to allow it based on its own merits and whether the timing is suitable – for example, requests during Ramadan or the Eid Fitri celebration period are typically denied.

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Indeed, at the Asian Naval Warfare Conference in Kuala Lumpur on September 10, which was open to the media although very little media showed up, Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, Commander U.S. 7th Fleet, directly addressed the matter:

“There’s no formal treaty with respect to Malaysia as far as military operations. In fact, we conduct operations with the Malaysian military on a case-by-case basis, when permission is granted. We have a lot of subject matter exchanges including in the maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft area so we’re doing more and more work in that regard, but that is not a formal policy document that says ‘hey, this is what we’re going to do and this is when we’re going to do it,’ this is really Admiral Kamarul [Vice Admiral Kamarulzaman, Deputy Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) Chief who was the senior RMN officer at the conference] and Robert Thomas saying, ‘hey what about this,’ and ‘can we get diplomatic clearance and permission to go work these exercises and this training.’”

And it’s not as if P-8s, or for that matter P-3 Orions, have not flown in and out of MAF bases in East Malaysia in the past. Check out any Malaysian planespotting forum and you’ll see plenty of evidence, all related to cooperation and exercises between Malaysia and the United States. Part of the reason the United States is keen to have the P-8 Poseidon go to Malaysia is to highlight its capabilities to the Malaysian military given that Malaysia has long had an outstanding requirement for a long-range maritime patrol aircraft, and the P-8 could fit that requirement.

Which raises another point, the ready assumption that anything to do with U.S. surveillance aircraft in East Malaysia has to be in regard to China. The fact is that Malaysia also has concerns about the state of security on the east coast of the state of Sabah in East Malaysia. Indeed, since last year’s incursion by Sulu separatists, the region has also been plagued by cross-border kidnappings by various groups from the Philippines. In that regard, a P-8 or P-3 going to East Malaysia may not necessarily conduct surveillance in an area where China operates. It’s not surprising that when the United States offers a chance for Malaysian personnel to fly aboard and see the P-8’s capabilities, Malaysia would opt to use the familiarization flight to gauge how it performs in an area where the country expects to do the bulk of its maritime surveillance mission.

Still, for some in the media, it makes for a nice story to say that Malaysia is offering the United States a base to stage P-8 flights as an attempt to counterbalance China, partly in response to Chinese maneuvers near East Malaysia and its waters. But the reality is that the Malaysian government hasn’t much changed its position that it can resolve issues with China diplomatically. The New York Times report quoting “a senior Asian diplomat” saying that Malaysia has been in discussion with the United States on such has to be considered in context. There are some Asian countries that might see it as advantageous to draw a wedge between Malaysia and China, and thus might deceive the media for such a purpose. It also illustrates the danger of relying on a single source to determine the truth.

The Malaysian government is very much aware of how stretched the Malaysian Armed Forces are in covering the area in question. Allowing the United States to set up in East Malaysia for the purpose of monitoring China would only provoke the Chinese to step up their activities in the area, further taxing the RMN and RMAF, which makes the move counter-productive, without mentioning the (domestic) political infeasibility. Unfortunately this type of context is seldom visible to those writing from Washington or New York, leading to narratives that are displaced from reality.

Dzirhan Mahadzir is a freelance defense journalist based in Malaysia and a regular writer on the Malaysian military and defense developments in Malaysia for a number of international defense publications groups including IHS Janes, Shephard Media, Mönch Publishing Group and Ventura Media.