Malaysia unveils first defence white paper; critics find 10-year plan lacking

Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu in Kuala Lumpur on June 28, 2018.
Malaysian Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu in Kuala Lumpur on June 28, 2018.PHOTO: ST FILE

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia tabled its first Defence White Paper in Parliament on Monday (Dec 2), 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 conflicts with other countries, it faces territorial disputes and non-traditional threats across its borders, thus requiring the country to take preemptive 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.

Mr Mohamad said defence initiatives under the white paper would need an annual allocation of at least 1 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

The white paper is meant to function as the country's 10-year policy plan for defence and national security, structured to not only deal with internal challenges like natural disasters and terrorism threats, but also external geopolitical risks stemming from tensions between the US 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 a challenge to excessive Chinese 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 with 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 that 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 his ministry could not reveal the figure and assets it plans to procure.

 
 

Despite the "historic" tabling, opposition parties have argued that the white paper failed to clearly address matters regarding Malaysia's territorial claims in the contested South China Sea, as well as 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's (BN) MP Shahidan Kassim, referring to the map in the white paper.

He added that content in the white paper were also lifted from an earlier Ikrar Kementerian Pertahanan (Ministry of Defense Pledge) booklet, which was launched by the government in April 2018 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 Malaysia's 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 that the white paper lacks details on the ministry's plans for the country's safety and security, calling it "disappointing and worrying" with many "loopholes".