Malaysia tabled its first defence White Paper in Parliament yesterday, but critics said the 10-year policy plan that was meant to address terror threats and military tension in the South China Sea was short on detailed strategy.
Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu explained that although Malaysia is not involved in armed conflict with other countries, it faces territorial disputes and non-traditional threats across its borders, thus requiring the country to take pre-emptive measures.
"The main role of the Malaysian Armed Forces is to maintain the peace we have and always be ready to defend the nation's interests and sovereignty. A Latin saying goes, 'Si vis pacem, para bellum', which means 'If you want peace, prepare for war'," he said in a statement.
He said defence initiatives under the paper would need an annual allocation of at least 1 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.
The paper is meant to function as the country's 10-year policy plan for defence and national security, structured not only to deal with internal challenges like natural disasters and terrorism threats, but also external geopolitical risks stemming from tensions between the United States and China that have spilled over to an ongoing regional dispute over islands in the South China Sea.
Tensions continued to escalate in recent months, with US warships sailing near various islands claimed by China, in what the US Navy described as a challenge to excessive territorial claims in the region.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$3.4 trillion (S$4.7 trillion) worth of goods are transported annually, under its unilaterally declared "nine-dash line". However, its territorial claims overlap those made by Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.
Beijing blames the US for increasing tensions by sending its warships and military planes close to islands claimed by China.
Malaysia has said it needs to boost its naval capabilities to prepare for possible conflict in the South China Sea between the two major powers, but Mr Mohamad said that his ministry could not reveal the planned budget nor the actual defence assets it intended to buy.
Despite the "historic" tabling, opposition parties argued that the paper failed to clearly address matters regarding Malaysia's territorial claims in the contested South China Sea and its operational capabilities.
"The White Paper does not show an approach that can strengthen our defence. Our territories are being encroached (on) by outsiders, but there are still no actions from the Malaysian side. These are our territories, these sandbanks, but the waters are patrolled by China," said Barisan Nasional (BN) MP Shahidan Kassim, referring to a map in the paper.
He added that contents in the paper were also lifted from an earlier Ikrar Kementerian Pertahanan (Ministry of Defence Pledge) booklet, which was launched by the government in April last year, when BN was the ruling party.
Malaysia's criticisms of China's claims over the South China Sea quelled notably after China pumped billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in Malaysia under its Belt and Road Initiative.
In August, Mr Mohamad told Reuters that China had "not done anything that caused us (Malaysia) trouble, so far" despite encroaching into its waters, adding that Malaysia regularly tracked Chinese naval and coastguard vessels entering its territorial waters.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Sept 28 also said Malaysia was too small to stand up to the Asian powerhouse, even as Chinese ships surveyed its waters for oil and gas without permission.
Former defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein also said the paper lacked details on the ministry's plans for the country's safety and security, calling it "disappointing and worrying" with many "loopholes".