What’s Behind The New China-Malaysia Defense Committee?

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What’s Behind The New China-Malaysia Defense Committee?

The setting up of a high-level body is yet another move to boost their security ties.

During his weekend visit to Beijing, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced that a new high-level defense committee would be set up between Malaysia and China to boost cooperation. Though few public details have been unveiled, the committee represents just the latest step taken by both countries to further upgrade their burgeoning defense relationship.

As I have highlighted before, though the defense component of the China-Malaysia relationship has tended to lag significantly behind its other dimensions even after the inking of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on defense cooperation in 2005, inroads have been made incrementally over the past few years in some areas like the establishment of regular consultative mechanisms, exercises, and even defense deals (See: “Malaysia’s New China Warships Deal: Promises and Prospects”).

Despite disagreements over issues like the South China Sea, Malaysian officials continued to view cultivating a good relationship with Beijing as a critical part of preserving Malaysia’s security and prosperity even as the Southeast Asian state also cements partnerships with other countries including the United States (See: “(See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing it Safe”).

In keeping with this general tendency, following Hishammuddin’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan on his three-day trip to China, the Malaysian defense minister said that a new high-level committee would be set up to identify more practical and structured defense cooperation.

For close observers of Asian security affairs, the idea of such a committee is not new. Both sides have been discussing it and had publicly signaled their willingness to take this step during the visit of the Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission of China Xu Qiliang’s visit to Malaysia in late March, where he met with Hishammuddin.

The idea, Hishammuddin had indicated then, was to have a high-level committee chaired by both defense ministers to examine aspects that could either “strengthen or sour” bilateral relations and to help further institutionalize the defense relationship more generally. Though he was not specific about what these working groups would be, he said groups would be set up for areas such as military cooperation, the exchange of information and intelligence, education and training, strategic affairs, and “current issues,” which he defined as including threats in the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, the Malacca Straits, and terrorism.

He also added that the effort Malaysia was expending to do this reflected its emphasis on institutionalizing ties to preserve “the unique relationship” it had with Beijing. Defense-related matters, Hishammuddin emphasized in his remarks, “cannot rely solely on personalities because personalities come and go.”

During his visit to China, Hishammuddin reiterated that the new committee would be set up and confirmed that it would be headed by the two defense ministers. But few answers were given to the questions that went a-begging during the revelation in late March, such as what exactly these working groups would be and how the formation of the committee would affect the practical running of the defense relationship, including the regularity of meetings and the level of representation from both sides.

Hishammuddin did say that the two sides would work together on boosting defense ties in some areas including exchanges and visits. He also indicated that he had instructed Malaysian Army Chief Zulkiple Kassim and Malaysian Air Force Chief Affendi Buang to discuss further what that collaboration would involve.

Apart from developments related to the new committee, Hishammuddin’s visit saw him have meetings with key Chinese officials and discuss bilateral and regional issues. He met with General Xu Qiliang as well as State Councilor of the State Council Yang Jiechi and Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun. Their discussions ranged from terrorism to North Korea to the South China Sea.

He also witnessed some signings during his visit. The one that got the most attention, unsurprisingly, was the one related to Malaysia’s decision to buy four littoral mission ships (LMS) from China, the first major defense deal between China and Malaysia that was inked during Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit to China last November (See: “Malaysia is Not Pivoting to China With Najib’s Visit”).

As I have written before, though the LMS decision fell victim to sensationalist media accounts about the China dimension of the deal, the LMS deal is also important from the perspective of Malaysia’s ongoing defense modernization, since it is a crucial component of the 15-to-5 Armada Transformation Program proposed by the Malaysian Navy (See: “Where Are Malaysia’s New Warships In Its Military Modernization?”).

During Hishammuddin’s visit, he witnessed the signing of a contract between Boustead Naval Shipyard Sdn Bhd (BNSSB) and China Shipbuilding and Offshore International Co. Ltd (CSOC) related to the LMS deal, which would see the first two ships will be built in China, while the other two will be constructed in Malaysia thereafter.

That came as little surprise. We have seen further developments regarding the deal trickling out as expected, including during the 2017 iteration of the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA) held in Malaysia last month, where reports suggested that, in addition to revealing more details about the proposed LMS configuration, CSOC may consider setting up an office in Malaysia to support its LMS program for the RMN in a testament to China’s growing involvement in the Southeast Asian state’s shipbuilding industry. All indications thus far are that the deal appears to be going ahead as expected.

But Hishammuddin also saw the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Peking University and Malaysia’s National Defense University (UPNM). Though this was neglected by several media outlets, it attests to the importance of other areas of an increasingly comprehensive Sino-Malaysian defense relationship that led to the genesis of the new committee, rather than just the occasional defense deal that often attract the most headlines.

Hishammuddin also reiterated the fact that the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) had agreed that an upcoming ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise would be conducted in ASEAN waters. That, too, is not really news, since China has been discussing the prospect of such a joint exercise with ASEAN states for years, including during its inaugural meeting with ASEAN defense chief back in October 2015 (See: “China Reveals New Proposal to Boost Defense Ties With ASEAN”).

Hishammuddin said the move, which will be finalized soon, is intended to strengthen defense cooperation and enhance the operability among countries involved to react against maritime challenges. But as I have noted before, the reality for most Southeast Asian states is that this looks like yet another manifestation of China’s South China Sea strategy of “incremental assertiveness,” where small conciliatory gestures are periodically rolled out as part of a calibrated effort to offset far more destabilizing actions that are still ongoing (See: “The Truth About China’s New South China Sea Drill Proposal with ASEAN”).