Malaysia will sign a contract to purchase Littoral Mission Ships from China when Prime Minister Najib Razak visits Beijing next week, according to a Facebook posting by the country’s Ministry of Defence.
The text of a speech to be delivered by Malaysian defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein was posted on Facebook on Tuesday, but was later removed after Reuters asked a defence ministry spokesman for comment.
The purchase of the patrol vessels, if it proceeds, would be Malaysia’s first significant defence deal with China and comes amid rising tensions in the South China Sea and as the United States and China compete for influence in the region.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Friday he was “unclear on the specifics of the situation”. But responding to a Reuters question at the daily ministry briefing he noted China and Malaysia “continue to cooperate and communicate regularly across all spheres”.
Malaysia’s ties with the United States became strained after the Department of Justice filed lawsuits linked to a money-laundering investigation at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which Najib founded and had overseen as chairman of its advisory council.
Najib is travelling to China on Sunday for a week-long visit.
“On November 5, 2016, the defence ministry will sign a contract for the procurement of Littoral Mission Ships (LMS) with SASTIND (the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense), which is an important part of the schedule during the Prime Minister’s official visit to China,” the Facebook post quotes Hishammuddin saying.
However, a video recording of the speech at the Malaysian defence ministry by Hishammuddin does not mention this contract.
A defence ministry spokesman declined to comment and the prime minister’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Littoral Mission Ships are fast patrol vessels that can be equipped with a helicopter flight deck and carry missiles. They are primarily used for coastal security, maritime patrol and surveillance, but can also be deployed for disaster relief and search and rescue operations.
China claims most of the South China Sea as its territory. But Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have rival claims to parts of the waterway, which commands strategic sea lanes which carry some $5 trillion worth of trade a year.