KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia is gunning for a revamp of its aging naval fleet, as countries in the region prepare to face threats from the influx of Islamic State (IS) militants fleeing Mosul, and from rising tensions in the South China Sea.
Defense spending in the Asia Pacific region is expected to hit $250 billion from 2016-20, IHS Janes Defense Weekly said in December, and Malaysia intends to improve on its capabilities alongside other states in the hotly contested South China Sea, even as its defense budget narrows.
Malaysia's navy aims to replace all 50 vessels in its aging fleet as the country cut its total defense budget by 12.7 percent to 15.1 billion ($3.41 billion) this year. That will be led by the procurement of four littoral mission ships (LMS) built in collaboration with China.
"The LMS are designed for many aspects of maritime security such as dealing with cross-border crime, piracy, anti-terrorism and search and rescue operations," Malaysian navy chief Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin told Reuters in an interview.
"These ships would be very capable of dealing with the threat posed by Daesh and other maritime security concerns," Kamarulzaman said, referring to the Arabic acronym for the IS.
Malaysia is expected to formalise the LMS deal with China at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA) this week to build four LMS and acquire the technology to construct more of the ships at home. The navy hopes this will enable them to eventually obtain a total of 18 LMS.
Plans to acquire four LMS from China were first announced in November.
Over 500 exhibitors from 36 countries will parade their wares at this year's LIMA, which is held every two years on the northern duty-free island of Langkawi.
Kamarulzaman said they are also in the final stages of negotiations with French shipbuilder DCNS to launch a program to build the larger littoral combat ships (LCS), which he said should be formally announced in August or September this year.
The navy is also looking to acquire three new multi-role support ships (MRSS) and two more submarines to round off the fleet.
The naval build-up in the region comes as tensions rise in the South China Sea, where Beijing's creation of artificial islands has alarmed some Asian countries and stoked friction between China's navy and the U.S. air force.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
Under President Joko Widodo, Indonesia's total defense spending jumped around 26 percent, and last month Thailand's military government approved a 13.5 billion baht ($389.05 million) submarine deal with China after putting the purchase on hold last year.
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), however, need to share intelligence if they want their big-ticket buys to be of any use, said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst with the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
Shahriman said asset upgrades like Malaysia's LMS program are important, but stressed that such high-value procurements would end up sailing blindly without strong intelligence sharing among the 10 ASEAN members, supported by a wide network of surveillance equipment.
"We're talking military patrol aircraft, radars, drones... and in bigger numbers. Quantity is a quality of its own. It doesn't make sense to aspire to top-of-the-range equipment but in small numbers," Shahriman said.
"Equipment that contributes to maritime domain awareness ought to be the priority for all. You can't fight what you can't see."