Malaysia as Sea Power: Safeguarding Maritime Interests

Sumathy Permal (Fellow with the Maritime Institute of Malaysia)


Elements determining a nation’s resilience and power include geography, population, natural resources, economic capacity, military strength, political stability, and information. Realistically, it is military power and its projection that are a major determinant of national power allowing the other elements to play their respective roles in a protected and secure environment. Traditionally, states use maritime strategy to achieve political objectives and goals with sea power acting as the anchor for maritime strategy. States that do not employ strategy or mismanage it usually lose in peace, in war, and in times of warlike peace.

Maritime strategy is a key component of military planning to secure political objectives and to support foreign policy not only in times of conflict but also during peacetime. The concept by Mahan (1890) a realist American naval strategist of the nineteenth century is generally perceived as the first order of strategic thinking in naval warfare. His main theoretical idea is that the nation with the most powerful navy would control the world. His “The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783” outlined six principles underpinning the development of a sea power, namely geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, population size, national character, and character of the government.

Conventionally, a powerful navy that dominates the sea lanes of communications also controls world trade; hence, sea power has been a prerequisite for great power status and world influence. However, in recent times, the importance of sea power has evolved to accommodate different peacetime needs. In this regard, naval strategy is not confined to seeking out and defeating enemy fleets but encompasses its adoption as an instrument of foreign policy with emphasis on deterrence as well as providing constabulary and humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

Contemporary global settings and new geo-political directions have made the world more interdependent and produced a greater and direr need to meet common threats.  Power in the 21st century is shared among big, middle, and small powers. While some countries lead the international agenda and set the direction, they will still have to collaborate with others on the basis of mutual respect and interest. The Indo-Pacific (Asia-Pacific area plus South Asia and the Indian Ocean regions) for instance has emerged as a new geopolitical and geo-strategic area where diverse and divergent interests have set the stage for greater rivalry and friction among nations.

Malaysia’s strategic location in the centre of Southeast Asia and its position as an emerging middle power have been a considerable factor in Asia’s political and leadership landscape. The country’s geographical areas of vital interest are encapsulated in the Peta Baru Malaysia 1979, across the South China Sea, Straits of Malacca, the Sulu and Celebes Seas and in the Indian Ocean. Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and Continental Shelf surrounding the South China Sea also falls within Malaysia’s offshore economic interests. These maritime areas are rich in living and non-living resources and contribute much to the Malaysian economy. In addition, the Straits of Malacca and the SLOC adjoining the South China Sea and the airspace above are strategic areas critical to the nation’s lifeline. As such, the nation’s military strategy, particularly its naval strategy, is to maintain presence, ensure sovereignty on the Territorial Seas and EEZ, defend against external threats and aggression, and deter or deny any hostile acts towards these interests.

Militarily, Malaysia does not seek to challenge any country, nor does it have any inclination of doing so. It is, however, concerned over issues of regional security such as developments in the South China Sea. In addition, the naval and air enhancement and weapon modernization initiatives by other nations and the maritime doctrines of neighbouring countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and China point to the need for Malaysia to respond appropriately. Geostrategic rivalry between the US and China, increasing interest of Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and from European countries in the Straits of Malacca, as well as the underlying stakes in the South China Sea are of much concern to Malaysia as she seeks to avoid disruptions in the sea lanes of communication in her maritime domains that are also used for international navigation. As such, Malaysia needs to enhance its sea power in all aspects, including surveillance, deterrence, and defense capability.

The Malaysian government has established strategic priorities in managing both national and international affairs that include strengthening good governance, justice, and a rule-based order in its domestic politics. On the international stage, Malaysia strongly emphasizes human rights, a policy of “prospering thy neighbour”, and cooperation as the basis for stability, especially the relationship with immediate neighbours such as Singapore and Indonesia. Notwithstanding that, there are certain areas where Malaysia needs to adopt a firmer position, particularly where issues of sovereignty are concerned.

Malaysia practices a diversified approach to the management and prioritization of its vast maritime area. More broadly, her policy is pragmatic and based on mutual respect for the parties concerned. The country’s foreign policy direction is backed by policy and planning geared towards safeguarding its sovereignty and towards ensuring that external entities do not compromise or pose a threat to the well being of the country. Malaysia’s policies with regard to the maritime domain need to be robust and adaptable so that its defense and security strategies and services remain resilient and credible.

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