On September 12, reports emerged that China had undertaken the second known docking of its submarines in Malaysia. Though the news, which came just before Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was about to meet U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, has not been publicly confirmed by either side, it is nonetheless likely to feed into fears about growing Sino-Malaysian defense cooperation.
As I have noted before and in much greater detail, not unlike some of its fellow Southeast Asian states, Malaysia has been cultivating a defense relationship with China in spite of the differences both sides continue to have, including on the South China Sea (See: “See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing it Safe”).
Yet while Sino-Malaysian defense relations had evolved slowly even since the inking of a formal defense pact between the countries in 2005 with reality is often much more sobering than the hype, and Malaysia has also been deepening ties with other powers such as the United States, it is also clear that ties have also been strengthening much quicker in the last year or two between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, including in the naval realm (See: “Malaysia is Not Pivoting to China With Najib’s Visit“).
In addition to incremental gains in areas like port access or defense consultations that do not receive as much attention, we have also witnessed more dramatic firsts making the headlines, including, among others: the first military exercises and the first significant purchase of Chinese defense equipment (See: “Malaysia’s New China Warships Deal: Promises and Prospects”).
One of these developments that made the headlines earlier this year was the visit of two Chinese submarines to Malaysia in January. While this was part of a broader pattern of Chinese vessels making more of such visits to Malaysia during the past few years, the fact this was the first known instance of a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine docking in the Royal Malaysian Navy’s (RMN’s) submarine base in Teluk Sepanggar had led to widespread media coverage (See: “Why Are China Submarines Visiting Malaysia?”).
On September 12, IHS Jane’s cited multiple unnamed sources as confirming that the second known docking of a PLAN submarine in the RMN submarine base had occurred from September 8 to September 11. Jane’s said that though the sources did not provide the name of the submarine, descriptions of the platform suggests that the submarine, which was reportedly escorted by a PLAN surface ship, was either a Yuan (Type 039A/B)-class or Song (Type 039)-class diesel-electric boat (SSK). Though few other details were provided, Jane’s added that the ships were believed to be on a return voyage to China after conducting escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and that, apart from engaging in activities such as taking on supplies and other professional interactions, no known training activities were believed to be carried out with the RMN.
The news comes just as Najib is set to meet U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House Tuesday afternoon after arriving in the United States on September 11. As I indicated in a previous piece, while U.S. media outlets continue to focus overwhelmingly on a high-profile corruption scandal implicating Najib, the actual agenda of the meeting will include security issues, including maritime security, China’s role in the region, and wider U.S.-Malaysia defense cooperation (See: “The Real Test for US-Malaysia Relations in the Trump Era”).