Malaysia has shortlisted five manufacturers as it seeks to buy 18 combat aircraft by 2015 to replace its ageing fleet of Russian-made MIG-29s, the defence minister said on Thursday.
The choice was between the Britain-backed Eurofighter Typhoon, Sweden's SAAB JAS-39 Gripen, France's Dassault Aviation Rafale, Boeing's F/A 18E/F Super Hornet and Russia's Sukhoi Su-30, Zahid Hamidi told Reuters.
"We've made the shortlist," Zahid said on the sidelines of the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition. "We don't know the cost yet."
Industry sources said the purchase could run into billions of dollars. The deal will help modernise the air power of the Southeast Asian nation, which is in dispute with China over parts of the South China Sea and with militants from the southern Philippines over its far eastern state of Sabah.
A decision on the fighters is only expected after the country holds elections, which Prime Minister Najib Razak has to call by the end of April. His Barisan Nasional coalition is predicted to win narrowly in a tight contest.
All five manufacturers were represented at the Langkawi airshow. Four manufacturers told Reuters they would be able to deliver aircraft to meet Malaysia's requirements, while officials from Sukhoi were not immediately available for comment.
Mark Kane, managing director of the Combat Air division at BAE Systems, which is one of the manufacturers of the Typhoon, confirmed that the company has had informal talks with the Malaysian government.
"Of course there isn't going to be a great deal of movement before the elections," he added, speaking at a briefing also attended by British Defence Equipment Minister Philip Dunne.
The Eurofighter Typhoon is on prominent display at the entrance of the exhibition.
Dassault meanwhile said in a statement that it is ready to develop long-term business ties with Malaysia in major civil and military aviation programmes.
Industry sources said Dassault has initiated talks with Malaysian companies for support services should Malaysia choose to buy the Rafale aircraft.
On Tuesday, SAAB signed an agreement for industrial cooperation with Malaysian conglomerate DRB-HICOM Berhad with a view to including the firm in the global supply chain for the Gripen aircraft.
And Michael Gibbons, Boeing's vice-president for the Super Hornet programme, told Reuters: "No doubt about it, we're looking at industrial participation for Malaysian companies."