Malaysia’s Interest in Joining BRICS: Key Motivations

In an interview with a Chinese outlet, days before the visit of Chinese Premier Li Qiang to Malaysia, Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim made some significant points. First, he made it clear, that Malaysia was looking to join the BRICS+ grouping. Said Ibrahim, “We have made our policy clear and we have made our decision. We will start the formal process soon. As far as the Global South is concerned, we are fully supportive.”

Second, he criticized the domination of the US Dollar in international trade. Several countries have been moving towards de-dollarization  — or trade in local currencies in recent years. There has been a specific increase in non-dollar trade after the imposition of stringent sanctions by the US on Russia (in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine war).

Finally, Anwar praised Xi Jinping’s leadership. He also reiterated the point that Malaysia would cultivate ties with both the US and China.

While Malaysia has had strong ties with China, Anwar – who has also served as Malaysia’s Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister — in the past has been considered pro-west, but in his tenure as PM he has sought to ensure that while Malaysia benefits economically from links with the US, it also further strengthens ties with China. During Li Qiang’s visit, Anwar emphatically stated: “We in Malaysia, having a neutral stance, have the resolve to work with all countries and with China.” 

Expansion of BRICS and Putin’s Vietnam visit 

In January 2024, BRICS initially consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa expanded with the entry of Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It would be pertinent to point out, that Thailand, another ASEAN country, has also expressed interest in joining the China dominated BRICS. At the BRICS Foreign Ministers meeting, held at Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, the Thai foreign minister had handed over a letter of intent for joining BRICS to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Chairmanship of BRICS is with Russia). A written statement issued by the Thai Foreign Ministry said: “Thailand views that BRICS has an important role to play in strengthening the multilateral system and economic cooperation between countries in the Global South, which aligns with our national interests.”

While all eyes were on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent North Korea visit, during his Vietnam visit (June 19-20, 2024) several agreements were signed. A joint statement issued, after the meeting between leaders of both countries underscored the point that efforts would be made to enhance ties between the BRICS countries and developing countries, including Vietnam.

Balancing act by ASEAN nations

Malaysia has robust economic ties with the US and has been raising concerns about growing tensions between China and US. Interestingly, because of US-China tensions, several chip companies seeking to diversify supply chains and moving from China (under what is called the “China Plus one” strategy have begun to invest in Malaysia. The ASEAN nation has received significant investments in the semiconductor, in recent years. Some of the major companies which have invested in Malaysia include – Intel (US), Infineon (Germany) and AI infrastructure by Microsoft (Malaysia has set a target of over $100 billion investment in the semiconductor sector). Interestingly, Anwar while hard-selling Malaysia has been highlighting its geopolitical neutrality. 

Thailand is a non-ally partner of the US while it also has strong ties with China.

Vietnam’s ties with the US have also grown. It has robust economic and strategic ties with Washington DC (it has emerged as the first choice for countries keen to relocate from China). US has underscored the fact, that Vietnam is an important stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific.

It is clear, that countries are keen to balance ties, reduce their dependence upon the US Dollar. 

Here it would be pertinent to point out that while several ASEAN countries have expressed enthusiasm in BRICS, Indonesia for instance has declined to join BRICS. Several countries also doubt whether joining BRICS would help in achieving any tangible benefits. 

In conclusion, while the desire of ASEAN countries to join BRICS needs to be viewed in the context of the changing geopolitical equations as well as the global economic landscape. While Russia and Beijing may view this as a shot in the arm, several countries are joining the organisation to harness the economic benefits and do not want to be caught in any geo-political wrangling.

[Photo by Pete unseth, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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