Malaysia’s China Dilemma

Decades of progress are expected to yield the desired outcome in charting Malaysia’s own autonomous and independent orientation of survival and interests but as a middle power, there are structural limitations on its true capacity.

Its military posture is comprehensively defensive in nature, with manoeuvres and strategic orientations based on an integrated and credible defensive force that is both deterring and effective in warding off threats. Malaysia’s foreign policy orientation has for decades upheld the sanctity of centrality and non-alignment deemed as the best basis in safeguarding its interests. These two critical aspects of security and foreign policy have for years been in the doldrum of public interests, where there is a disconnect between the masses and the resonance in defence and security affiliation. Critical conduits of the South China Sea dispute and its importance to its economic and security considerations, among others, have taken the path of ideological and country-based support and affiliation, superseding Malaysia’s own core interests and role in charting its best returns. Some see China, being the inevitable neighbour to Malaysia and the region as a long term curse, while to others, it brings a welcomed assurance and stability.

External observers remain puzzled by the predominant public ignorance on the importance of the South China Sea to Malaysia’s economic survival, seeing how the prevailing revenues from oil and gas are derived from its assets in this region, apart from marine resources and others. Decades of consistent stability in income and revenue have created complacency in creating a future driven strategic protection of its assets and potential, taking the spectre of resources and sovereignty for granted with the reliance and trust put on its policymakers with the policy orientation of being central and friendly to all nations, as the main bulwark of its survival and asset protection.

Challenges and threats to its resources by intrusive measures and tactics by external powers, including China, have not been given serious attention that warrants a strong deterrent measure. Alone as a country, there is insufficient capacity to forge sufficient tools for its own economic development and in defending its interests and survival. In the economic sphere, prevalent dependence on regional and global architectures increasingly shaped by Beijing’s economic agenda remains ingrained. Out of sheer urgent and desperate scramble for market, trade, capital, access and resources, Kuala Lumpur faces no option but to leverage on the easiest source of support readily provided by Beijing, from BRI to RCEP. On security and defence fronts, the lack of long term strategic and future driven planning especially in jettisoning the entrenched reliance on Beijing is laid bare, afraid to pivot to the superior forces of the West, and trapped in developing its own internal defensive capacities.

In facing imminent risks and threats to Malaysia’s interests and assets, especially in the South China Sea, are the Malaysians adequately able to create credible and effective deterrence measures against Beijing? What will be the responses of ASEAN that Malaysia has pinned so much effort on in building its role and influence? Will ASEAN and other regional players be beholden to the threats and greater chips and cards if Beijing in economic retaliations? All these remain critical pondering points for Kuala Lumpur as it juggles its position, now trapped between a rock and a hard place. Beijing seeks to exploit ASEAN’s centrality, which translates to a free hand for it to continue the current test and build approach. This involves testing the responses and extent of retaliation of regional players, all while continuing its building of more offensive military and power projection capacities in the South China Sea.

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. It is crucial at the new juncture of facing conventional and non-traditional threats in deciphering the question of the cost benefit analysis of this stand. How are the impact and outcome being measured and on what grounds and basis they are considered? What will be the real calculated impact on the ground for both the public and the nation of the orientation pursued? Are the Malaysians better off and more secure or otherwise? Will Malaysia’s current close partners that have been relentlessly pursued, especially Beijing and other players in the Middle East, provide the expected restraints or overtures and returns in the events of conflicts?

Short term gains and dependence based on its current economic state and political necessities might render its overtures and continued dependence on Beijing and others to be inevitable, especially when the returns are enticing and lucrative. To jettison its addictive and easy dependence trap, long-term strategic calculations must supersede current financial gains alone, where future stability in the returns and impact of the right partnership based on proven track record and pillars of values, trust and principles matter more in essence.

For this, great wisdom and strategic manoeuvring are crucial, in ensuring the sustainability of its assets and to diversify its defence and policy allies and partners. Malaysia’s military and security scope are limited to cautious pandering, with participation in military exercises and arms purchases, together with locally advancing military complex forming the conventional basis of its military and security ventures. To ensure its future transition in power parity and in readying for future vulnerability and risks, it is a calling to recalibrate its security postures and to seek concrete and resilient defence partnerships based on trust, values and lasting principles. Its current FPDA partnership must be upheld and strengthened, notwithstanding the arguments against FPDA’s role and impact. Its ASEAN gamble must be reassessed, taking into account future resilience and influence, especially the returns of assurances that it will derive from an uncertain fate awaiting ASEAN. The grouping remains a future lost cause barring any credible and lasting reforms in this approach, and lacking an effective deterrence tool and waning effectiveness and influence, ASEAN’s future lustre is contingent upon it deciding to continue its centrality and hands-off approach or to be bold in a new agenda setting.

In fearing upsetting Beijing and not to be seen to pivot away from its enduring path of non-alignment, Malaysia is reluctant to engage in any deeper defence and military partnership with the West and Washington unlike the Philippines and Singapore, out of the main basis of maintaining its autonomy and independence in policy orientation. The real impact on its future survival in the case of a full-blown conflict in the region that threatens its sovereignty and survival, amidst the centrality approach, is worth a proper re-evaluation. At what expense will its shunning of deeper military and security partnerships with established powers like Washington be, in the event of the country needing the right and urgent support in deterrence measures and in conflict management?

While there is no permanent friend or enemy in the global geopolitical arena, a friendship in disguise and a wrong enemy for target are the recipe of a strategic misstep and backfire. It is of utmost importance to note, that China’s future regional and global hegemonic ascension is not cast in stone, and conversely, America’s perceived decline and loss of power comparatively is not inevitable. For now, the region and in most part Malaysia itself, are driven by this notion of growing multipolarity dictated by Beijing, and casting their bets on the periphery of China’s rise in preparing for the future where Beijing’s influence and dominance in almost all sectors of growth are perceived to be inevitable.

The outcome of this global rivalry with increased bipolar power competition with shifting geopolitical architecture is far from sealed. It is easy to discredit and write off Washington’s future power resilience, and the Malaysians and the regional players might find themselves on the wrong footing, at their own larger collective expense. It will be too late to be mired in the lost opportunities by then, where the fall-out from the potential full-blown conflict would change the dynamics of regional and global trust. Most importantly, the trust and balance of power will be permanently redrawn.

[Photo by World Bank]

*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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