Asia Defense

Assessing Malaysia’s Coast Guard in ASEAN Perspective

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Asia Defense

Assessing Malaysia’s Coast Guard in ASEAN Perspective

A closer look at the trajectory of the Southeast Asian state’s coast guard-like body amid regional developments.

Assessing Malaysia’s Coast Guard in ASEAN Perspective
Credit: US Navy Photo

Last week, IHS Jane’s reported that a senior Malaysian service official had confirmed that the country had finally moved toward changing the name of its coast guard-equivalent body, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), to the Malaysian Coast Guard. Some may dismiss this reported shift as cosmetic, while others might herald the birth of a new organization. In fact, the report reflects broader trends: namely the rise of coast guards or coast guard-like bodies in the subregion as well as the growing, albeit still modest, capabilities of the MMEA over the past few years.

The Growth of ‘Coast Guards’ in Southeast Asia

Malaysia is just one of several countries which has been focusing more on boosting its maritime law enforcement capabilities (called “white hulls”) relative to navy forces (termed “gray hulls”). Indeed, several other capable Southeast Asian countries in the maritime space have been doing the same over the past few years.

In part, this is a reflection of broader trends, such as the rise of a wide spectrum of maritime-related threats – which range from natural disasters to piracy – as well as the increasing scale and sophistication of maritime capabilities of Southeast Asian states to respond to them (which, with few exceptions, still remain quite modest). The emphasis on maritime security in Southeast Asia is evidenced by other developments beyond the military realm as well, including the increased focus on the issue in ASEAN-led fora, be it the ASEAN Maritime Forum (and the expanded variant, which includes ASEAN’s dialogue partners) or the ASEAN Coast Guards Forum officially put forth by Vietnam in 2014.

More specifically, in many cases the increasing investments some Southeast Asian states have made in coast guard or coast guard-like bodies is a response by these countries to mitigate the vast asymmetry in maritime capabilities between them and China which has manifested itself in so-called grey-zone contingencies: those that lie in between wartime and peacetime that may thus necessitate the deployment of assets other non-military assets beyond the navy that have traditionally been deemed less escalatory. Amid the rise of territorial maritime disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, for instance, we have seen countries like Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia take a range of economic, legal, diplomatic, and military actions aimed at expanding the role coast guards play in the defense of their maritime interests (See: “Trust Deficit Remains as China Boosts Security Role”).

Despite this trend (and the title of this piece), only some of the coast guard-like agencies in these Southeast Asian states are actually designated as coast guards, and these names, along with the mandate of the agencies and the ministries that they are attached to, can change over time. The changing face over the decades of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), which officially dates its founding back over a century ago, is a case in point, with its designations and role shifting back and forth several times. More recently, the Vietnamese Coast Guard (VCG) was only given that name in 2013, though Vietnam did have the Vietnam Marine Police since the late 1990s. Neither Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) nor Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (BAKAMLA), set up recently under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo are referred to as coast guards by name.

Similarly, how one defines whether or not a Southeast Asian state effectively has a coast guard or not, and how close it is to it, can be a more subjective question even if the metrics are quite objective. Indeed, as I pointed out last week, when I asked Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan about BAKAMLA’s capability challenges, he admitted that the equivalence of BAKAMLA with a coast guard was in fact still a “dream” that was far from being realized (See: “Confronting Indonesia’s Maritime Coordination Challenge”).

Though the capabilities of these coast guards or coast guard-like bodies in Southeast Asia are growing, for now they still remain quite modest. Apart from the obvious fact that most of these countries are building from a small base, boosting capabilities has often proven tough due to a range of reasons, from insufficient budgets to interagency rivalries. These challenges are offset by opportunities offered not just domestically but internationally through allies and partners who have invested more in capacity-building initiatives. The United States’ Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) and Japan’s proposed coast guard body for ASEAN states are just two examples of this, even though some of them have proven tougher to get off the ground than initially planned (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative”).

MMEA: Malaysia’s ‘Equivalent of a Coast Guard’

Among Southeast Asian states, Malaysia has been somewhat ahead of the curve relatively speaking. Malaysia set up its MMEA over a decade ago in November 2005, years before concerns about China’s South China Sea assertiveness began turning the heads of foreign observers to the maritime capabilities of ASEAN states.

Like most of its other ASEAN compatriots, MMEA had a rather modest start and continues to face resource constraints, even as it now helps Malaysia confront a wide variety of challenges such as smuggling, piracy, illegal fishing, and militancy. Malaysian officials have admitted that its fleet will need newer and more capable vessels, along with equipment like radars, to help patrol and surveil Malaysia’s vast maritime space, and that coordination amongst various maritime agencies remains a problem. Efforts are also underway to boost the manpower of the organization, including through the deployment of volunteers in addition to permanent staff.

These issues are part of a broader problem with Malaysia’s maritime capabilities, which have come under strain in recent years amid China’s South China Sea conduct (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing It Safe”). Malaysia’s modernization efforts, including the 15-to-5 Armada Transformation Program, are partly designed to address these issues (See: “Where Are Malaysia’s New Warships in its Military Modernization“).

Yet at the same time, over the years, MMEA’s capabilities have grown, making itself worthier of that “equivalent of a coast guard” label. In terms of numbers, according to the latest government estimates, MMEA began with just 59 vessels but has now boosted its capabilities to 255 ships today. MMEA also continues to receive some significant capability boosts despite the difficulty Malaysia has had in increasing its defense budget under the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who previously served as defense minister. In March, it got its first New Generation Patrol Craft (NGPC) – the largest, fastest, and most sophisticated vessel to enter its fleet. The Malaysian government has also said that it will allocate funding for the MMEA to build three Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), in addition to two OPVs offered by the Japanese government.

 Time for a Name Change?

Amidst all this, last week, Jane’s reported that a senior Malaysian service official had confirmed that the MMEA would now be formally known as the Malaysia Coast Guard. First Admiral Ibrahim Bin Mohamed, the service’s Director of Maritime Crime Investigation Department, said during a presentation at the Maritime Security and Coastal Surveillance conference in Jakarta that the rebranding would reflect both the country’s ongoing modernization program and the agency’s conception of its responsibilities today.

According to Ibrahim, new vessels being delivered into the service, including the aforementioned new NGPC, would feature this new name, even though the MMEA label will be retained in the meantime for working purposes. Some may argue that this change in name might be coming too soon. Nonetheless, it attests to the importance Malaysia is placing on the MMEA within its broader defense strategy, as well as the incremental inroads the organization has made in spite of the formidable challenges it faces.