Last week, Malaysia concluded exercises that featured a series of missile firings in the South China Sea. While this was a pre-planned development, it nonetheless spotlighted the ongoing question of the evolving shape of Malaysia’s South China Sea approach in the context of wider regional developments.
As I have noted before in these pages and elsewhere, Malaysia has traditionally pursued what one might term a “playing it safe” approach in the South China Sea. Despite some hardening of Malaysia’s position over the past few years, the overall approach itself has not fundamentally changed, including under the current Pakatan Harapan government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Last week, Malaysia’s approach to the South China Sea was in the headlines again with a display of its missile capabilities in the maritime domain. The missiles were launched as part of pre-arranged military drills carried out by Malaysia – Exercise Kerismas and Exercise Taming Sari – that were held between July 1 and July 18.
According to a statement issued by the Malaysian defense ministry (MINDEF), a Type FS 1500-class corvette, KD Kasturi, fired the Exocet MM40 Block II, while a Super Lynx naval helicopter launched two Sea Skua anti-ship missiles.
This is not the first time that Malaysia has conducted such activities in the South China Sea. Anti-ship missiles have been carried out before as well, including before China even started its artificial-island building campaign. Malaysia’s navy chief, Mohamad Reza Mohamad Sani, told media in a press conference on July 23 following the exercises that the successful missile launches were the first since the last firing conducted in 2014.
Given other recent developments, including China’s firing of missiles into the South China Sea, it is little surprise that the development has gotten more international attention than usual. It also came amid a series of other developments in the South China Sea, including renewed China-Vietnam tensions and the commemoration of the third anniversary of the July 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling.
Reflecting on the significance of the exercise in this context, Malaysia’s navy chief said that while the tests were not unusual, “it is very important to the Navy as it proves our assault capabilities to the public and other countries in the region.” In a separate defense ministry statement, Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu noted that the development also served as assurance to the maritime community “that the RMN and the Malaysian Forces stand ready to uphold peace and defend their interests in the South China Sea.”
To be sure, Malaysia’s recent missile launches are only one part of its overall South China Sea approach. Nonetheless, such manifestations of the Southeast Asian state’s behavior will continue to be significant to monitor to get a sense of the extent of continuity and change in its positions.