PETALING JAYA: The docking of Chinese submarines at Malaysian ports isn’t a security concern, nor do they affect Malaysia’s neutral stance, say analysts in the wake of the issue being raised in the Dewan Rakyat.
In recent years, the inflow of Chinese money, which has gone towards billion-ringgit infrastructure and property development projects, has raised questions about Malaysia’s ability to remain neutral in a region which is being closely watched by the world’s superpowers.
China’s aggressive militarisation in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, has resulted in heightened tensions with Asean countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, among others, but concerns over China’s intentions go far beyond Southeast Asia.
In January, the arrival of a Chinese submarine in Kota Kinabalu – believed to be a Type 039 “Song” class diesel electric submarine – made waves, with world media from the United States to India, running stories on it and raising questions about China’s naval activities.
The Chinese defence ministry, in a statement to The Wall Street Journal, had said the submarine docked in Sabah for supplies and for its crew to rest after anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia.
But the Indians were worried that Chinese submarines were instead tracking their own submarines and ships in the Indian Ocean.
Earlier, at the Dewan Rakyat, Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that foreign military vessels, including the Chinese naval vessel, had obtained permission and diplomatic approval from Wisma Putra.
Subsequently, PKR’s Selayang MP William Leong, in a statement, said Hishammuddin’s response indicated that Malaysia is moving towards closer military cooperation with China.
He said this was on top of warmer economic and diplomatic ties, seeing as how Malaysia allowed a Chinese submarine with intelligence-gathering capabilities near the Royal Malaysian Navy’s own submarine base.
Leong said this appeared to be a “significant policy shift” by Putrajaya and urged the government to maintain its policy of neutrality.
He also said China may have “strong motivations” to use investments in Malaysia, such as the deep sea port in Kuantan and the Melaka Gateway, for its own strategic interests, pointing to China’s construction of a naval base in Djibouti (at entrance to the Red Sea), or the assigning of two navy ships to protect Pakistan’s Gwadar port.
Security not threatened, neutrality maintained
Lam Choong Wah, an independent defence and strategy analyst, said the docking of Chinese submarines at Malaysian ports do not pose a security threat due to military protocols.
“Although Chinese submarines have intelligence-gathering devices, military protocol dictates that these devices need to be shut down when they enter our waters.”
Lam added that it would be easy for the Malaysian military to determine if these devices were shut down as the devices would give off electromagnetic and acoustic signals.
“Furthermore, when the submarines dock in our waters, they have to surface and also keep in contact with our navy.”
He also pointed out that in the past, naval ships from the US, United Kingdom and India, with similar capabilities, had docked at Malaysian ports, including American Los Angeles-class submarines, so there was no reason why Malaysia should adopt “double standards” and disallow Chinese naval vessels.
Ngeow Chow Bing, from the Institute of China Studies at Universiti Malaya, said the issue didn’t affect Malaysia’s military ties with countries like the US, UK and Australia.
He also said that military cooperation with China wasn’t exactly new and that since the early 2000s, there had been attempts to improve defence ties between both countries.
In 2005, Malaysia and China signed an agreement on defence cooperation.
Ngeow added that other countries in the region, including Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia, also had defence cooperation agreements with China.
“I don’t believe that allowing Chinese submarines to dock here is a game-changer as if we’re becoming more exclusive to China. Rather, it is more of progression in terms of our defence cooperation with China.
“I think even Western superpowers will see this as a normal process because they do the same thing.”
On the other hand, Ngeow said if Malaysia “shut out” China, it would be seen as if it was siding with the West rather than being neutral.
Were views of armed forces’ top brass sought?
But retired brigadier-general Mohd Arshad Raji is less convinced and wonders whether the “special treatment” Malaysia is according to China in terms of military cooperation is due to economic reasons.
“This kind of ‘special treatment’ given to China was unheard of in the past.
“In the case of the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand, we have a long-standing defence understanding with them.”
He added that Malaysia has never had a defence understanding with any communist regime like it does now and fears Putrajaya has set a dangerous precedent.
“What else comes after this? Allowing China’s air force to have freedom of flight over our airspace or the construction of military facilities?
“I just wonder if our armed forces’ top brass were ever consulted by Wisma Putra on any issues relating to China’s military making use of our facilities.”
FMT’s attempts to contact Wisma Putra for comment were unsuccessful.