China asserting hegemony in South China Sea a ‘masterstroke’, meanwhile, Malaysia flounders

On Dec 21, the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) released a declassified footage of a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Shenyang J-11 fighter intercepting a US Air Force RC-135 electronic/signals (ELINT/SIGINT) reconnaissance aircraft somewhere over the South China Sea.

In a statement, USINDOPACOM claimed that the pilot of the J-11 performed an unsafe manoeuvre during the intercept by flying in front of, and within 20 feet of the nose of the RC-135, forcing it to take evasive manoeuvres to avoid a collision.

The footage, filmed from the cockpit of the RC-135, clearly showed the J-11, armed with what appeared to be two short-range, and two medium-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs) taking up position on the RC-135’s left wing. The J-11 is also armed with a single, 30mm Gryazev Shipunov Gsh-301 auto-cannon embedded in the right wing root, with 150 rounds of ammunition. The RC-135 has no defensive/offensive capabilities.

USINDOPACOM said the RC-135 was “lawfully conducting routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace”.

This sabre-rattling over the South China Sea is the latest in the hotly-contested region, with China increasingly exerting control and flexing its muscles in an area it considers its ‘back yard’.

Beijing has been consistent in its resolve, and has spent the last two decades staking its claim in the region and beefing up its military to provide the ‘muscle’ to back up its territorial ambitions.

Its third aircraft carrier, Type 003 (named the ‘Fujian’) will give the PLAN a true ‘blue water’ capability, able to conduct offensive air operations, and more importantly, amphibious assaults, away from the relative safety of the mainland.

The flattop was launched last year but has yet to undergo sea trials. It is being fitted out and will be some years before it reaches operational status and joins its sister ships, the Liaoning and the Shandong.

Over the past several years, Malaysia has seen a number of ‘incursions’ by China’s vessels and aircraft. Malaysia, along with other countries in the region, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, and Vietnam, have overlapping territorial claims with China over certain areas and parcels in the South China Sea.

“Part of the problem is, we don’t have an effective strategy to deal with this issue, both from a diplomatic and from a military standpoint,” said a geo-political analyst with a Kuala Lumpur-based think tank.

“China’s approach is to tackle this issue of territorial claims, simultaneously, from three different angles. Militarily, it asserts control over the region through the deployment of strategic and tactical forces in the area. Over time, this lends its claims a certain ‘legitimacy’.

“This ‘show of force’ is an effective deterrent, as it demonstrates Beijing’s seriousness in defending its rights. It also puts the other claimants on notice, to tread lightly.

“On the diplomatic front, it maintains cordial relations with all the other claimants. This gives China a certain ‘latitude’. Disputes can be resolved through negotiations and dialogue, and no ‘little brother’ would want to antagonise ‘Big Brother’. So far, this has worked well in China’s favour. It also helps if you have a meek and subservient leadership.

“China’s third ace-in-the-hole is its economy. As of 2021, Chinese firms are the third largest source of FDI (foreign direct investments) in Malaysia, with an aggregate FDI totalling RM31.3 billion (US$7.5 billion).

“China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. We have too many projects tied to them. They could play hardball if they wanted to.

“Any move to stand up to Beijing’s territorial aspirations could result in China imposing economic sanctions on Malaysia. That is something that we just cannot afford. And Beijing knows this.”

Collectively, these three separate elements form a single, unified strategy in pushing China’s hegemony in the region.

“China has refined it into an art form, deftly alternating between these three elements to get its way. It’s a masterstroke in diplomacy,” said the analyst.

A defence observer who spoke to Twentytwo13 on condition of anonymity said militarily, Malaysia is nowhere near China, in terms of sheer numbers and the ability to inflict damage.

“Let’s just look at China’s conventional, non-nuclear forces. China’s air force has 3,285 combat aircraft. Its navy (PLAN) has around 440. The Royal Malaysian Air Force, by comparison, only has roughly 46 combat jets.

“PLAN’s fleet consists of more than 355 vessels, and counting. The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) meanwhile, has only 61 vessels and 12 helicopters. Across the board, we have no long-range, offensive standoff capability.”

Typically, nations spend at least three per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence. Malaysia’s fledgling economy allows it to only spend roughly one per cent of the GDP on defence. That amount is usually evenly split between capital expenditure (CAPEX, for acquisitions) and operational expenditure (OPEX, to maintain the assets and so on). Over the last four to five years, Malaysia’s defence spending has been on a downward trend.

“Typically, fighter aircraft serviceability rates in most air forces is between 70 and 80 per cent, with the rest down for scheduled maintenance or for repairs. The RMAF is no exception.

“Also, the RMN needs to desperately update its equipment, with some ships almost reaching the end of their service life. Radars and fire control systems need to be updated, the anti-surface missiles that provide long-range strike capability need to be modernised with the latest variants that are resistant to jamming and other countermeasures.

“All this requires money which this country cannot afford to lose through systemic corruption. That’s why the scandal involving the Littoral Combat Ships has deep implications on our nation’s defensive posture. We are looking at a serious capability gap across all four branches of our Armed Forces.

“All this wastage, corruption, financial mismanagement, and inefficiencies, have left us wide open and vulnerable,” the observer added.

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