This article is part of the ‘Blue Security’ project led by La Trobe Asia, University of Western Australia Defence and Security Institute, Griffith Asia Institute, UNSW Canberra and the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue (AP4D). Views expressed are solely of its author/s and not representative of the Maritime Exchange, the Australian Government, or any collaboration partner country government.

What are the maritime governance priorities for Malaysia?

Malaysia’s approach to maritime governance is underpinned by its 2020 Defence White Paper that envisages Malaysia as a “Maritime Nation with Continental Roots.” The DWP outlines Malaysia’s role as a bridging linchpin between the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions that cultivates opportunities amid the uncertainties in the maritime domain. Malaysia seeks to secure strategic waterways and airspace, protect it national sovereignty, sovereign rights and independence, and defend economic interests related to oil and gas, fisheries and ports.[1] While much analysis focuses on Malaysia’s foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific and South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean are also strategically important to Malaysia. In fact many of Malaysia’s non-traditional maritime security concerns emanate from the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea’s connection.[2]

Against this backdrop, four priorities can be identified for Malaysia’s maritime governance. First, it aims to safeguard its territorial waters and sovereign rights through legal instruments embedded in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS), a treaty ratified by Malaysia in 1996.[3] This effort was epitomized by its 2009 and 2019 extended continental shelf submissions to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to reinforce its claim in the South China Sea.[4] Other issues related to this priority are Malaysia’s dispute with Indonesia on Sipadan-Ligitan Island that flared into a crisis in 2002 and Pedra Branca 2008’s case against Singapore that was resolved by the International Court of Justice.

The second priority is to ensure that diplomatic channels remain open, inclusive, and constructive so that disputes and assertive behavior by claimant states can be managed. This prioritization is reflected in Malaysia’s urgency to negotiate the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct[5] and to protest China’s assertiveness in Malaysian waters through diplomatic channels.[6]

The third priority is to develop credible defense partnerships with countries like the United States, Australia, and even China, to bolster its defense capability through asset procurement and naval cooperation.[7] This priority helps Malaysia to develop the maritime capability and capacity needed to  safeguard its interests.

Finally, Malaysia prioritizes the strengthening of its law enforcement agencies through the empowerment and collaboration between the interagency on maritime governance, especially the Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) and the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM). These agencies are not only responsible for patrolling waters where Malaysia has rights and to protect them from encroachment and incursions, but also for dealing with transnational crimes of terrorism, kidnap-for-ransom, and illegal migration.

What does Malaysia see as the most critical maritime security challenges?

Malaysia’s top critical maritime security challenges are maritime boundary disputes, China’s assertiveness, and non-traditional security threats.

Maritime boundary disputes in the South China Sea and with other ASEAN states —  for example the Sulawesi Sea with Indonesia, the Philippines’ dormant claim over Sabah, and maritime boundary dispute with China over the nine-dash-line claim — are all major concerns for Malaysia.

China’s assertiveness, manifested in a series of encroachments, incursion, and standoffs, also presents a major challenge. A key event related to this challenge was the 2020 West Capella standoff which started when Chinese vessels harassed a drillship contracted by Petronas, Malaysia’s national oil and gas company. This eventually led to Malaysian and Chinese maritime forces sailing in close proximity near Borneo. The event escalated when U.S. and Australian naval forces arrived in the vicinity.[8] In 2021, the Malaysian government again protested the encroachment of Chinese vessels into Malaysian waters.[9] The following year, 16 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) jets violated Malaysian airspace leading the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) to condemn the action as a threat to national sovereignty.[10] Presently, the encroachments of the China Coast Guard near Luconia Shoals directed at Malaysia’s Kasawari gas exploration field and operations developed by PETRONAS, present a serious challenge to Malaysia’s lucrative oil and gas industry.[11]

The final critical maritime challenges prioritized by Malaysia are non-traditional. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing alone has been estimated to cost Malaysia US$650 million to $1.3 billion annually and the losses have a direct impact on Malaysia’s economy.[12] Meanwhile, emerging maritime threats in East Malaysia such as terrorist activities, kidnapping-for-ransom and illegal immigrants present a monumental risk to Malaysia’s national security and provide challenges for its ability to govern maritime area.[13]

What are the maritime governance strengths of Malaysia?

Malaysia has maritime governance strengths in the areas of legal instruments and defense partnerships. These elements reinforce one another to contend with different maritime challenges.

First, regarding legal instruments, Malaysia adopts international maritime dispute resolution processes to manage its territorial disputes while consolidating its quest for maritime rule of law. Malaysia leverages UNCLOS to stake its claim in the South China Sea, an area valued in terms of oil and gas, fisheries, and ports. Malaysia’s continuous focus on legal mechanisms can be seen in the 2009 and 2019 Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf submissions, and in its approach Sipadan-Ligitan and Pedra Branca’s cases.

Second, Malaysia has credible defense partnerships in the maritime domain through bilateral cooperation with the United States and Australia,[14] minilateral arrangement on the Malacca Straits Patrol with Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand, and the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement with Indonesia and the Philippines, which help combat non-traditional security challenges. Through multilateral partnerships of ASEAN and ASEAN-led establishments, Malaysia’s activism at ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM+ is of paramount importance in exerting its maritime governance strengths at international fora. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s involvement in the Five Power Defence Arrangements continues to provide an enduring regional security architecture in strengthening defence cooperation between Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.

What are the most significant maritime governance capacity gaps of Malaysia?

Malaysia’ maritime security governance capacity gaps include: a relatively small defense budget, a lack of coordination among agencies, and insufficient defense assets to patrol and secure Malaysia’s maritime domain.

The Malaysian Armed Forces is currently operating on a budget of $3.79 billion in 2023. As in other years, the defense budget is less than one percent of the country’s $385 billion gross domestic product (GDP). In contrast, neighboring Singapore spends six percent of its GDP on defense.[15] The call to enhance the national defense budget has been echoed by researchers, policymakers, and RMN leaders.[16] Currently, despite a proposed increase in the defense budget in 2023,[17] the scandal surrounding Malaysia’s defense procurement – notably the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) debacle – has hindered efforts to bolster its defense capability in the long run.[18] Due to emerging challenges on security and non-traditional threats that require advanced technology and assets, it would be desirable for Malaysia to ramp up its expenditure to at least at two percent of its GDP.

Cross-agency coordination also needs to be improved to enable better management of Malaysia’s maritime issues. Differences related to how Malaysian enforcement agencies responded to crises observed during the 2021 PLA jet incursions exemplify this issues. The first official statement regarding the incident was released by the Royal Malaysian Air Force. This specifically condemned China’s action as a serious threat to Malaysia’s airspace.[19] A second statement followed, this one published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It reiterated Malaysia’s position to protect its dignity and sovereignty but took a much milder tone, and stopped short of specifically condemning the act.[20]

Finally, Malaysia’s aging and insufficient defense assets need to be upgraded urgently. The RMN’s 1970s and 1980s-era equipment are no match for today’s emerging maritime challenges, especially in the South China Sea. [21] With the LCS scandal delaying the delivery of new ships, smaller littoral mission ships need to be expedited to bolster Malaysia’s maritime capability.[22] Unfortunately, the lack of accountability on military procurement is detrimental to overall national defense.

The Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) faces a mounting task due to insufficient assets and budget.[23]  Formed after the 2013 Lahad Datu incident where a portion of the eastern shore of Sabah was occupied by people supporting the Sultan of Sulu’s claim to the area, ESSCOM’s mission is to defend against terrorism and cross-border crimes. [24]  While the situation in the tri-border has improved in the last decade, this capacity shortfall is still a major issue.

What are priority areas for international cooperation that would improve maritime governance capacity in Malaysia?

Key areas that Malaysia could leverage for international cooperation include joint training and exercises, technology-based cooperation, and confidence-building measures (CBMs). Doing so will help enhance Malaysia’s readiness and capability in maritime governance.

Malaysia’s joint training and exercise has taken place with regional and extra-regional countries, including the United States, China, and Japan.[25] By intensifying and diversifying its joint training, Malaysia reinforces its maritime surveillance capabilities and strengthens it ability to provide maritime governance.

By focusing on science and technology-based capacity building, Malaysia can also work to enhance interoperability between ASEAN member states and key defence partners such as the United States and Australia to spearhead improved maritime governance amid emerging challenges. In particular, technological transfer incorporating state-of-the-art defense technology can bolster Malaysia’s readiness to contend with cybersecurity and advanced threats in the maritime domains.

Finally, Malaysia could streamline regional CBMs by making greater efforts at the national level. This is in line with the UNCLOS framework as a key guiding principle for practical implementation of the CBM. The CBMs that Malaysia could prioritize include expanded naval activities involving regional and extra-regional countries, continuation of the Code of Conduct negotiation, and the consistent dialogue and consultation to preserve peace in the South China Sea.

How can existing regional and minilateral security frameworks contribute to maritime governance in Malaysia?

Malaysia’s maritime governance will continue to gain from regional and minilateral security frameworks. Primarily, ASEAN and regional minilateralism help by consolidating a regional stance and advancing an agenda of peace and security, embedded in economic prosperity. In the South China Sea, along with the Sulu Sea and Straits of Malacca, Malaysia has benefitted from creating security frameworks that are driven by cooperation amidst maritime disputes. In fact, maritime disputes did not hinder Malaysia in establishing minilateral arrangements with other states such as the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) and the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA), both aimed to combat transnational threats.[26]

Existing security frameworks provide a platform for Malaysia to promote cooperation in capacity building, technological advancement, and joint operation and training. The recent initiative to establish an ASEAN Coast Guard Forum,[27]  the U.S. Coast Guard’s expanded presence and partnership activities in the region,[28] and the continuity of MSP and TCA benefit Malaysia by creating opportunity for like-minded coordination on specific challenges while sharing knowledge and capabilities to improve intra-regional and cross-agency cooperation.

The negotiations toward the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct for the South China Sea also help strengthen Malaysia’s position and claims through UNCLOS. This is because, despite overlapping claims and assertive behavior in the South China Sea, ASEAN’s drive for a Code of Conduct  complements Malaysia’s UNCLOS-rooted approach to maritime governance. With the second reading of the COC ongoing ahead of Malaysia’s 2025 ASEAN Chairmanship, it is timely for Malaysia to leverage this leadership position by expediating a Code of Conduct that supports a UNCLOS-centred regional maritime order.

[1] Ministry of Defence Malaysia, Defence White Paper: A Secure, Sovereign, and Prosperous Malaysia (ETM Prima Sdn. Bhd.: Selangor, 2020), 29,

[2] Troy Lee-Brown, “Navigating maritime security in the Bay of Bengal,” East Asia Forum, August 13, 2022,

[3] Sumathy Permal, “UNCLOS and Maritime Governance: Why It Matters to Malaysia,” Fulcrum, September 6, 2022,

[4] “Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) Outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines: Submissions to the Commission: Partial Submission by Malaysia in the South China Sea,” Oceans & Law of the Sea, July 26, 2022,

[5] “Malaysia’s Position on the South China Sea,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Malaysia, April 8, 2023,

[6] “Malaysia Protests the Encroachment of Chinese Vessels into Malaysian Waters,” ,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Malaysia, October 4, 2021,; Ken Moriyasu and Wajahat Khan, “Malaysia says China’s maritime claims have no legal basis,” Nikkei Asia, July 31, 2020,

[7] Xavier Vavasseur, “4th And Final LMS ‘Rencong’ Delivered To Royal Malaysian Navy,” Naval News, December 18, 2021,; “Navy plans to buy 2 more submarines,” Free Malaysia Today, February 10, 2023,

[8] Ivy Kwek and Chiew-Ping Hoo, “Malaysia’s Rationale and Response to South China Sea Tensions,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, May 29, 2020,

[9] Malaysia Protests the Encroachment of Chinese Vessels into Malaysian Waters,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs Malaysia, October 4, 2021,

[10] Abdul Razak Ahmad, Cheng-Chwee Kuik, and Yew Meng Lai, “PLA Overflight near Malaysian Airspace: A Precarious Provocation,” Fulcrum, June 30, 2021,

[11] Emirza Adi Syailendra, “China, Indonesia, and Malaysia: Waltzing Around Oil Rigs,” The Diplomat, August 18, 2022,

[12] Veishnawi Nehru, “Billions of Ringgit Lost via Illegal Fishing Annually,” The Sun Daily, May 10, 2023,

[13] Karisma Putera Abd Rahman and Fikry A. Rahman, “Reexamining East Malaysian Security in an Age of Growing Threats,” The Diplomat, July 7, 2022,

[14] Cheng-Chwee Kuik and Abdul Razak Ahmad, “Malaysia’s Resilient (but Ambiguous) Partnership with the United States: The Dilemmas of Smaller States in the Indo-Pacific Era,” Asia Policy, Vol. 16, No. 4 (2021),; “Aussie military to boost cooperation with Malaysia,” The Star, November 8, 2022,

[15] B.A. Hamzah, “Beef up military budget,” New Straits Times, January 31, 2023,

[16] See Thomas Daniel, “Issues Impacting Malaysia’s Maritime Security Policies and Postures,” ISIS Malaysia, June 16, 2018,; Jamil A. Ghani, “Nation can no longer ignore defense spending reforms,” ISIS Malaysia, December 15, 2022,; Elina Noor, “Foreign and Security Policy in the new Malaysia,” Lowy Institute, November 6, 2019, Ridzwan Rahmat, “Malaysian navy makes rare appeal for more funds in 2023 defence budget,” Janes, October 5, 2022,,Sany%20to%20the%20Malaysian%20media.

[17] Jon Grevatt and Andrew MacDonald, “Malaysia proposes strong budget increase with an eye on military procurement,” Janes, February 28, 2023,

[18] “Spotlight on the LCS scandal,” The Edge, August 27, 2022,

[19] Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (Royal Malaysian Air Force), “Press Release of Chief of Air Force,” Facebook, June 1, 2021,

[20] Wisma Putra (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Malaysia), “Press Statement by Foreign Minister Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein: Ministry of Foreign Affairs will issue a Diplomatic Protest and summon the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China,” Facebook, June 1, 2021,

[21] Johan Saravanamuttu, “Malaysia’s Policies and Interests in the South China Sea: Developments, Successes, And Failures,” RSIS Working Paper, No. 336 (2021),

[22] Bernama, “2023 Budget: Focus on procurement of new assets, maintenance of existing ones – defence expert,” New Straits Times, October 1, 2022,

[23] Bernama, “Urgent need of additional assets: Esscom,” Daily Express, November 17, 2021,

[24] Jasmine Jawhar and Kennimrod Sariburaja, The Lahad Datu Incursion and Its Impact on Malaysia’s Security (Kuala Lumpur: The Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism (SEARCCT), 2016),

[25] Ed Adamczyk, “U.S. Navy, Malaysia’s air force hold South China Sea bilateral exercises,” United Press International, April 7, 2021,; Iman Muttaqin Yusof and Nisha David, “Malaysian, Japanese coast guards hold South China Sea security drill,” BenarNews, January 13, 2023,; Chow-Bing Ngeow, “Malaysia-China Defence Relations: Disruptions Amid Political Changes and Geopolitical Tensions,” ISEAS Perspective, No. 57 (2021),

[26] Prashanth Parameswaran, “Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines Consider Expanding Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrols,” The Diplomat, April 19, 2022,

[27] Joanne Lin and Laura Lee, “Minilateral Cooperation in ASEAN May Help it Overcome Challenges in Multilateralism,” ISEAS Perspective, No. 16 (2023),

[28] John Bradford and Scott Edwards, “U.S. Coast Guard Is Helping Southeast Asians Protect Their Seas,” Foreign Policy, March 9, 2023,

About Fikry A. Rahman

Fikry A. Rahman is the Head of Foreign Affairs at Bait Al Amanah, a political and development research institute based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His research interests include Chinese digital connectivity in Southeast Asia, maritime security and governance, and Malaysia's foreign policy and domestic politics. His insights have been featured in The Diplomat, Pacific Forum, and the New Straits Times.