Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s second visit to Malaysia ended without much fanfare and hype as opposed to her first visit last year.
Her visit underscored the criticality of the ties to both countries, particularly for Canberra. Malaysia and Australia have always been reliant on one another in a greater geostrategic aspect, one that transcends the normal parameter of common indicators of economic, defence and people to people ties.
Historically, the bilateral ties have been dominated by the nationalistic and East-West divide, in being dictated by the direction and pursuit of individual leaders of the past that have created an engulfment of mistrusts, wariness and unpredictability of whether the other player is committed and sincere in having a trust-based and value driven relationship.
Economic factors have always been the central pillar in almost all ties, but it serves as an enabler of cascading and ripple effects of greater long term consolidation of firm foundations. This is also reflected in the enhancement of people to people establishment and in sectors of low politics including exchanges and partnerships in education, talent exchanges, knowledge and technology transfer, tourism and scientific exploration.
For KL-Canberra future ties, geopolitical settings and criticality remain at the forefront and the highest denominator, amidst the growing regional threat setting and in both sides seeing the critical need to elevate interdependence in economic survivability and in security and deterrence resilience.
The turmoil in supply chain, resources, critical technologies and in facing renewed threat parameters in the region with the common threat source, all compelled both nations to see the long term superseding factors in upping the level of strategic reliability and dependence, especially in geosecurity and defence arena.
For Malaysia, Australia has been its trusted partner for decades, which predate its independence, and further reinforced by the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) in 2021.
Canberra remains the closest Western partner in the region, in fixed geographical setting, apart from Washington’s mobile security presence.
The worsening regional tension, arms race and spiralling security dilemma have created unchecked Thucydides’ trap, and a regional scramble for military and security intensification.
Regional conflict management mechanisms have so far failed to lower the threat setting, even serving as a blinding ignorance and a convenient tool in prolonging and delaying the inevitability of real risks of clashes and miscalculations especially in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
Geographical realities have created the inevitable dogma of having the need to confront reality at hand in the cost benefit calculations of facing direct and indirect threat and fall-out from the South China Sea escalation, and potential of a full-scale conflict in Taiwan.
It is this reality that the Aussies have come to terms with, in facing the permanent risks and threat setting from Beijing in reorienting Canberra’s security and defence calculations, with AUKUS just being part of the needed medium term beefing up of its defensive posture.
Canberra realises that it remains a sitting duck against Beijing’s might and potential military backlash and security fall-out from the South China Sea and Taiwan flashpoints, apart from deteriorating trust and ties with Beijing.
Canberra’s defence and deterrence capacity remains vastly inferior against Beijing’s regional hegemonic status without Western support, a reality that matches Malaysia’s own current vulnerability but Malaysia remains fixated towards appeasing and appealing for Beijing’s own self restraint and good will. For Australia, it remains forward looking and realistic, in prioritising its own survival and interests and this requires the needed support from other Western allies and partners in standing up against possibilities of the domino effect from the region.
Australia and New Zealand remain the only Western nations in this hemisphere, and both cannot afford to fall under the domino impact from Beijing’s new power projection and execution, and this is a critical need for the West collectively in providing the most expansive and long term lifeline and support as possible.
AUKUS is born out of this geopolitical need, and for Malaysia, it must be wise to leverage on shared concerns, threats and strategic goals with Canberra, and this must not be framed and seen from a singular point of view.
Kuala Lumpur has been quick to officially denounce it as another reckless Western measure that would provoke regional tension, but we have also been quietly welcoming with rising relief and confidence that it will, with other US-led Western security pivot to the region, provide at least a form of deterrence against Beijing’s rising bellicosity and hard power intimidation against regional players. AUKUS 2.0 for Malaysia remains an area for potential exploration if push comes to shove and if threats are becoming more imminent and severe.
If Malaysia is indeed serious in projecting and prioritising its immediate security goals, Australia will indeed play a supportive role in this aspect, provided Malaysia is bold and realistic enough to lead and shape regional capacity, notwithstanding the expected backlash from Beijing and regional peers and the equally expected arms race and tensions.
Malaysia will be needed for its strategic resource-based assets, its geostrategic capacity and location and its growing appeal and leadership in regional mechanisms including ASEAN that will dominate the first line of defence against hard power clashes and conflicts.
Malaysia’s strength in counter terrorism efforts and deradicalisation capacity will also be leveraged upon, apart from the new normal of post-pandemic needs of strength and stability in supply chain, critical resources including rare earths and semiconductor, natural resources and the new domain of green and digital led economies. Rare earths and the Lynas dilemma have also been at the forefront in importance for the bilateral ties, and any decisions on Lynas must not be based on emotions, political baggage, knee jerk pushing factors and short-sightedness in trying to project its authority and moral ground in this issue.
It involves far greater implications for Malaysia’s economy, the world’s future investment and outcome of this critical resource and in the wider Sino-West conflict and competition that will also shape and impact on our survival, security and sovereignty in the medium and long future. This must be drilled into our public and policymakers’ awareness and mindset, amidst the overwhelming and almost total one-sidedness in the waves of negative perceptions and accusations against the rare earths operator.
Both countries are part of various economic partnership platforms, both in bilateral and multilateral foundations including bilateral FTA, Asean-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area, RCEP and the CPTPP. Volume of trade has increased annually, to around RM88.65 billion for 2022 and Canberra remains our 10th biggest economic trading partner.
All these however, will be secondary to the primary focus on bolstering and amplifying geopolitical needs and pursuits in securing the needed trust, alignment in purpose, values and belief and in unifying greater transcending factors in enhancing joint capacity in various tools and means.
This ranges from greater offensive and deterrence capacities, credibility and perception of the FPDA and in Canberra and the West’s new exploration of the possibility of Malaysia playing a larger regional role and influence in the bigger chessboard of managing and containing the threat and rise of both traditional threats led by China and North Korea and non-traditional threats still sustained by climate change, terrorism and transboundary crimes and natural challenges.
Malaysia must remain strategic and wise in reading the new changes in security and geopolitical realities, and it must not be blinded by short term ignorance and bliss as it continues to mould its best foreign policy option and direction.
KL-Canberra ties remain crucial and the bedrock of regional stability, security interdependence and economic interests which will have spin-off benefits for ASEAN and the wider Western hemisphere. If Malaysia sees China as its inevitable powerful neighbour that needs meticulous pandering and orientation, Australia too is Malaysia’s highly important close neighbour that will provide greater returns in the long term. The returns will not be short term, addictive and enticing in nature, but one that will be enduring, value and principle based, technology and knowledge driven and a prevailing systemic and structural improvement, one that is in line with Malaysia’s new vision and Madani concept.
[Photo by Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)/Sarah Friend, via Wikimedia Commons]
*Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in the University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.