Earlier this week, Malaysia was handed the first of a series of ships being designed by China following the conclusion of a landmark defense deal a few years ago. The development once again spotlighted the state of the agreement as well as the broader Sino-Malaysian defense relationship more generally.
While there have been other instances of gradual inroads in China-Malaysia defense relations, one significant development came in 2016, when under the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, Malaysia agreed to buy four littoral mission ships (LMS) from China. The deal constituted a landmark development for both the bilateral relationship – being the first naval purchase of its kind between the two countries – as well as for China’s growing defense ties with regional states.
While there have been some adjustments made to the deal since the new Pakatan Harapan government took office in May 2018 and there have been some delays, it has nonetheless proceeded with the launches of some of the vessels occurring last year and deliveries expected to follow on thereafter.
Last week, this manifestation of China-Malaysia defense ties was in the spotlight with the handing over of the first LMS to Malaysia. The ship was handed over on December 31 over at the Wucang Port at Wuchuan Shipping Industry Co Ltd in Qidong, Shanghai in a ceremony that was attended by Malaysian officials.
Per a statement released by the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN), the process consisted of a series of steps. The handover occurred after the Malaysian government’s delegation, led by Ahmad Husaini Abdul Rahman, the defense ministry secretary with the acquisition division, had inspected the ship and took part in its demonstration voyage.
The handover is itself significant, since, as the RMN statement noted, it constitutes “the first capital defense asset acquired from China” by Malaysia. It is also in line with previous developments regarding the deal. The vessel that was handed over, the Keris, was the first vessel that was launched back in April last year at the Shuangliu Manufacturer Base of Wuchang Shipbuilding Industrial Group in Wuhan, China after construction that officially dated back to July 2018, and so it makes sense that it would also be the first vessel to be handed over given the scheduling of the various vessels.
With the handover process now complete, the focus will be on the next steps in its integration into the Malaysian military. The ship is expected to be commissioned in a ceremony consistent with naval protocols and traditions on January 6, with Malaysia’s navy chief officiating the event.
Regarding the broader deal, the RMN’s statement indicates that the latest disclosed timelines for future ships are expected to be met. The second ship is scheduled to be handed over to the government in April 2020, and the remaining ships are expected be handed over sometime in the middle of 2021, with no specific dates yet to be publicly disclosed.