On August 27, the Chinese defense ministry announced that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) would hold their first ever joint live-troop exercise next month.
The exercise, code-named “Peace and Friendship 2015,” will be held in the Malacca Strait during the second half of September. The focus, according to Chinese defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun, will be the joint execution of non-war operations. It will include training items like joint maritime escorts, the combined search and rescue of hijacked ships, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and a gunnery exercise.
The exercise will be read as a boost to the bilateral defense relationship and the China-Malaysia comprehensive strategic partnership more generally. While the two countries had held their first ever bilateral military drills in December 2014 last year under the banner of “Peace and Friendship 2014,” that was a joint table-top exercise held at the MAF Joint Warfare Center. This year would mark the first time that the PLA and MAF have conducted a joint live-troop exercise.
Partly as a result of this, the exercise will also be much bigger this time around. Last year, only 21 personnel participated from the PLA side. This year’s Chinese participating force comprises 1,160 officers and men, two surface ships, one hospital ship, four transport aircraft, and three ship-born helicopters.
Kuala Lumpur and Beijing have long had a close relationship, with Malaysia being the first ASEAN country to normalize relations with China in 1974 and China now being Malaysia’s top trading partner and tourist-generating market outside of ASEAN. But as I have pointed out previously, the security component of the bilateral relationship has tended to significantly lag behind its other dimensions (See: “Malaysia, China Begin First Joint Military Exercise”). Initial efforts tended to be focused on exchanges and education, though more momentum has been added to defense ties over the past few years with formal defense and security consultations as well as joint exercises.
That being said, even Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein himself noted the nine long years between when the two countries first signed their MoU on defense and when he first announced plans to hold joint military exercises in an October 2013 visit to Beijing.