AS China and the US compete for influence in the Asia Pacific and Southeast Asia, Malaysia has sought to build strong yet balanced relations with both powers. It is unlikely for Malaysia to allow itself to become so overwhelmed by China that its independence of action in the international arena is hindered. Up to now, Malaysia has been receptive to the US rebalancing act as it has strengthened Malaysia’s own economic and security interests.
A small country like Malaysia, like many of its neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia, is constrained in its capacity to dramatically shape an external strategic and structural environment dominated by major powers. This geopolitical shift compels Malaysia’s leaders to formulate a calculated and somewhat reactive foreign policy to the actions of major powers in the region.
Some researchers characterise Malaysia’s management of its South China Sea (SCS) dispute with China as a “hedging” one, balancing its national interest of maintaining close economic relations with China with the interest of ASEAN solidarity vis-a-vis China.
But even if the term “hedging” were to describe Malaysia’s handling of the SCS disputes, it should at least be interpreted in a wider context. It is widely known that in addition to maintaining fruitful trading relations with China, Malaysia, not unlike its many Southeast Asian neighbours, also welcomes the US to continue to play a constructive role in regional security matters.
This primarily takes the form of Malaysia’s strong and growing defence relationship with the US. The burgeoning defence ties between the two countries are perhaps best illustrated by the increasing number of US naval ship visits to Malaysia and Malaysian Armed Forces conducting exercises far more regularly with the US than with any other country. On the other hand, Malaysia has always diversified its military as it flies both US and Russian-made fighter jets. Then again, Malaysia-US relationship is pretty robust as US is still one of the top sources of foreign direct investment (FDI) for Malaysia.
It is not only in the economic sphere in which Malaysia is drawing closer to the United States. Malaysia and other claimants in the SCS disputes looks to US and its allies to maintain free trade, safe and secure sea lines of communications (SLOCs), and overall peace and stability in the region.
Claimant countries view US military presence as necessary to allow decision-making free of intimidation. US rhetoric and actions against China’s assertiveness in the SCS have emboldened other claimants to lean closer to the United States for security guarantees in the disputes.
US also had highlighted the importance of enhancing not only US relationship with countries in the region, but also to build up the regional security architecture, especially in dealing with maritime issues in Southeast Asia. The security and military cooperation underscore the long-standing strategic relationship that exists between both countries. These avenues of joint security cooperation could serve as platforms to boost Malaysia-US partnership on maritime and other security issues.
By building closer security ties with the United States, Malaysia could expand its foreign policy options on dealing with issues such as the SCS disputes. Malaysia may be said to be more than just “hedging” its way out of the SCS disputes. It refines a more comprehensive outlook towards eventual peaceful resolution of these disputes.
One must not be blinded by China’s power that seems to inundate US in terms of military, political or economic power. US military supremacy had already vastly outweighed China and continues to press forward, with Washington spending nearly three times more than Beijing on defence. There is reason to doubt Chinese exuberance that its spectacular rise will continue. Even after pumping vast quantities of debt into its system, China’s economy is slowing while its population rapidly ages.
A lot of misguided commentaries loom in the skies of uncertainty about how the recent state visit by YAB PM to China represents a Malaysian pivot towards China, that somehow this is a smack in US face who has been spreading its tentacles in this region ever since. Rumour has it that China’s economic offers are Najib’s trump card to save his scathed image reflected by 1MDB’s imbroglio that has been haunting him so long. But then again, rumours stay rumours.
But let’s not allow perceptions to get ahead of reality. A good relationship with China does not have to come at the expense of relationship with the US. It is not necessarily a zero-sum game as it is not in Malaysia’s interests to tilt to one side at the expense of another. One would say that this latest scenario in Southeast Asia is a new kind of diplomatic tug-of-war. But it is too early to jump into conclusions.
Eddy Liow is an independent analyst and Malaysian Access reader. Article written is strictly his personal view. Malaysian Access does not necessarily endorse the opinions given by any third party content provider.