Is Beijing’s Grip on Malaysia and the Region Inevitable?

Will Malaysia’s true essence of Independence, recently celebrated in its 65th anniversary, be lost in the wave of ignorance, entrenched by the grip of China? For more than six decades, Malaysia’s progress has been both the envy of many and a spent force to some. A full autonomy to dictate its foreign policy in securing its interests and sovereignty seems to be a distant reality, where Beijing continues to loom large in dictating Malaysia’s orientation of affairs and overtures of roles and purpose. Changes over the decades in Malaysia’s foreign policy orientation from being pro West to non-alignment has produced mixed results in some parameters, and dwindling prospects in others. Current ingrained dependence on China reflects the vulnerability and trapping of its path, creating a self-created abyss of continuous reliance on addictive, easy and rapid solutions to challenges faced which Beijing is happy to fill in the gap. The acceptance and inflow of returns from BRI to RCEP, have highlighted the addictive reliance on Chinese capital and market that provide political and socio-economic wins for Malaysia and the region. The economic benefits derived from the RCEP are deemed to be far greater than IPEF, where Washington continues to be admonished for the limited market offering as compared to its Chinese counterparts, all while pressing discreetly for Washington to increase its support and aid to the region.

It masks Malaysia’s real potential and tools of future cultivation, limits its chips and cards and freezes its options to independently secure our long term interests. The enticing lure of easy capital and relatively easy requirements for capital and resource inflow from Beijing, form the deep-rooted cycle of strategic dependence and increased engulfment of Chinese sway. Kuala Lumpur is trapped between a rock and a hard place, needing the critically vital market, trade and resources in shoring up its stagnating economy and in plugging the systemic hole of abuses and corruption, while facing increased security vulnerability as the unintended trade off. Rocky ties under different premierships in Malaysia have stabilised and taken to greater heights by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, keen to capitalise on Beijing’s ease of credit and resources and in shoring up local economic competitiveness. Once wary of Beijing’s sway in local affairs, statesman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has now encouraged a stronger pivot to China, accusing Washington and the West of provoking China over the Taiwan issue with constant provocative tactics, culminating with Pelosi’s visit.His consistent anti-West approach has been strategically capitalised by Beijing in seizing upon the openings to continue the anti-West narrative and in amplifying China’s cultural and economic persuasion.

Local sentiments have continuously shifted, with perceptions on China taking a differing turn based on racial lines. The predominant Malay community has increasingly been wary of Chinese influence and grip on Malaysia’s economic and cultural spheres, further compounded by Beijing’s bellicose actions on pushing the nation into a corner with the unprovoked violations of territorial rights. Beijing’s hidden hands and sinister agenda remain a big concern with the Malay population segment.

Conversely,a positive perception of China remains ingrained by a majority of the Malaysian Chinese populace, often equating criticisms of China as part of the West’s containment efforts which are deemed as hypocritical. The strong yearning to affiliate with Beijing’s influence and power has resulted in dangerous overtures and blind acceptance of the narratives shaped by Beijing,at the detrimental expense of Malaysia’s long term interests. For this demographic segment particularly, historical ties and roots between both countries are capitalised as the pretext for greater affiliation with mainland China, joining the bandwagon of pride and resonance in seeing its meteoric rise to global power dominance. This pride has at times transcended different levels, instead of a cultural and historical one. Another factor remains that they are partly discontented by local Malaysian state of affairs and direction which have been deemed as a lost cause, compounded by systemic abuses and lack of good governance. Seeing China reclaiming its global posture brings a different hope for them, providing greater resonance as being part of the wider Chinese roots and community in sharing the pride and strength.

Arguments for closer Kuala Lumpur-Beijing ties are not confined to economic lifelines alone. The mere fact that China is here to stay geographically, while Washington remains a distant and unreliable partner, reflects both the fear and optimism faced by policymakers. While neighbours might be permanent, a country is still at the full liberty to design its fence and front door in dealing with its neighbours. Current scenario reflects the inability and unwillingness of Kuala Lumpur in dictating how it creates new shifts in its dealing with Beijing.

Sensing the prevailing sentiments and Malaysia’ tied hands, Beijing wisely capitalised on historical baggage and narrative on shared rich legacies and ties of both countries dating back centuries as another precursor for its cultural charm offensive. Past attempts and interactions by China since centuries ago are projected as peaceful and friendly, and highlighting the vast differences with the West’s approach which have been pictured as intimidating, deceitful and exploitative in pointing out the centuries of colonialism and exploitations.

The range and depth of Beijing’s grip and influence pushes Malaysia to a derailed effort in determining and executing its own foreign policy in many parameters, fearing upsetting the apple cart. Deviations from the norms and expectations of the region, especially ASEAN’s centrality or Beijing’s expected wishes, or any potential pandering to Western power will invite retaliatory measures in various domains that will affect Malaysia’s recovery efforts. Facing greater economic vulnerability and pressing pressure to meet internal political demands and wins, Kuala Lumpur finds it increasingly difficult to reimagine and realign its foreign affairs, especially in dealing with Beijing and the West. Western counterbalance measures, including AUKUS and increased Western military and economic overtures in the region and Indo Pacific have been discreetly welcomed but publicly chastised. Conformation to the regional and Chinese spectrum of regional order further reinforces Malaysia’s central approach. Chinese incursions into Malaysian airspace and other coercive measures have been met with subdued responses, choosing to rely on quiet and backdoor diplomacy at most, with glaring reasons not to prolong and intensify the situation.

The same goes for the West Capella maritime standoff, where the immediate presence of Western counterbalance force in naval capacity to show support for Malaysia has been met with Malaysia’s criticisms, admonishing the West for raising tensions and worsening the conflict. In quickly bypassing any flashpoints or crisis and resorting to ad hoc and interchanging responses, the deterrence and credibility level of Malaysia’s responses are easily readable and exploitable. Perceptions on its weakness and unwillingness to register strategic and solid response to Beijing’s continuous pressure reverberate far and wide, and it is deemed as a lost cause in it providing any real impact on containing China. In this regard, both ASEAN and Malaysia have lost their appeal to the West in pinning their hope and strategy of deeper Western security foothold, with Washington realising that the current status quo of their pandering to Beijing makes it difficult for the US to establish rooted military alliances and placement of strategic anti-missile capacities, among others. Only Canberra remains resilient and bankable in the immediate region, and getting the buy-in from the regional players for QUAD’s expansion remains increasingly snowballed by this current status quo and Beijing’s hardened intention to keep it that way.

Centrality, either as a nation or as a regional grouping, equals a continuous free hand for Beijing to dictate and shape regional security architecture to its own strategic calculations. Worse, Malaysia and other regional players remain unable to change the status quo without the underlying Western support.

In deciphering the next orientation of facing China, four fundamental questions remain for Malaysia. Firstly, does the trust and faith put on China in preserving the close knit dependency worth future volatility and vulnerability to the unknowns and future conflicts? Secondly, are the yet to be proven credibility, staying power and effectiveness of the Chinese model of regional and global order worth the relentless pursuit and investment of Malaysia’s resources and reliance? Thirdly, will the assurances and enticing alternative system, economically and militarily, as championed by Beijing, be immune to the future resilience and sustainability of these unproven systems? Finally, is Malaysia and the region ready to cope with a future that is China-wary and the eventual value-based transition to higher norms and principles of rules-based order espoused by the West, a shift from conventional China-centric periphery with mere reliance on its market and capital?

Domino effects seen in various countries at the receiving end of this new engulfment and penetration of influence by Beijing, from port takeovers to political and media sway, serve as both a fearful impetus and a renewed drive to repel further Western counterbalancing acts. Policymakers remain trapped in this dichotomy, fully aware of the risks involved and the fate of the nation and the region, albeit having to fulfil short term urgent needs of nation building and economy-saving from the debt crisis it faces, worsened by the 1MDB financial saga. This will be at the expense of long term survival interests of both the nation and the region, where barring overwhelming reorientation of stances and effective long term cohesive plan in dealing with China, a deeper fall into the abyss of an endless spiral of vulnerability and entrapped prisoner’s dilemma remains inevitable.

[Photo by Pete Unseth, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in 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. He is a regular contributor in providing Op-eds and analytical articles for both local and international media on various contemporary global and regional issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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