SINGAPORE/KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 28: As Malaysians welcome a new government led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, all eyes are on how he will balance the need to maintain relations with China and also its neighbours against the sovereign interests of the South-East Asian nation.
Malaysia has for decades been seen to be Western leaning but fully capable of charting an independent course that has seen it build robust economic and diplomatic ties with China, but this has gradually morphed into Malaysia being increasingly seen as becoming a satellite state of the rising Asian superpower.
Through a number of trade agreements, vast investments and infrastructure projects including the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a key component of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has been seen as solidifying Malaysia’s place in its sphere of influence along with Cambodia, Myanmar and increasingly Thailand.
This in combination with various influence campaigns using media, academia associations and other soft power tools has seen Malaysia’s ability to act on its sovereign interests gradually erode particularly with the country’s claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and support for China’s Uyghurs.
Malaysia has largely remained silent on incursions by China’s fishing fleets and military assets into its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and most tellingly it abstained on a vote on whether the UN Human Rights Council should debate the alleged abuses of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.
As seen in other members among the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), there is a slow but growing trend to pivot away from such total dependency on China as countries in the group recognise the long-term perils of being under Beijing’s thumb, Collins Chong Yew Keat a foreign affairs analyst with University of Malaya said.
He added that as China’s regional hegemonic agenda gains steam under a reinvigorated President Xi Jinping who recently secured a third term, increasingly belligerent actions in the region to secure Beijing’s immediate interests in Taiwan and the SCS will eventually backfire on its intention to strengthen its influence on the region.
“The West’s perceived decline is not cast in stone, and China’s consistent rise is not inevitable. We have repeatedly seen projections of China overtaking the US, yet each time the US remains supreme, using its unrivalled economic and political fundamentals to maintain a global order based on respect for human rights and norms, rules adherence and democratic freedom. Simultaneously cracks are emerging in China’s internal economic resilience, plagued by various structural and systemic instabilities and long-term demographic setbacks worsened by growing global distrust.
“We must be wise to foresee the changing parameters and not assume that China will become the biggest economic force, although we seem to accept the inevitability of China being our most powerful neighbour and have long been assiduous enough not to incite its wrath. While the West seems far away geographically, we are close by through values, and purpose and we should be assured based on these values that it will continue to stay in the region”, he said.
Chong suggested that Malaysia, despite lacking the powerful economic and military resources to stem China’s expansionary activities, could instead leverage on its strengths in semiconductors and strategic commodities as it seeks an independent path.
“We need to gradually jettison our reliance and to build resilient new economic pathways that are non-China centric. We have been strategic and wise to a certain extent in this, diversifying our economic reliance and expanding our market access, but we need to speed up and initiate economic reform to reinforce our bargaining power through our stakes in the regional and global supply chains.”
“When push comes to shove, our national survival and sovereignty remain paramount. If ever there would be threats to our territorial integrity and interests. Malaysia must adhere to a global transition based on norms and values and principles, instead of fast and addictive capital support and market openings offered by Beijing that we have been so long accustomed to,” he said.
In recent times Malaysia has seen an overreliance on China for its exports and foreign direct investments (FDI) investments, leaving the country vulnerable to economic shocks from a slowing Chinese economy.
The World Bank East Asia and Pacific October economic update briefing held on Sept. 27 found Malaysia is more heavily reliant on China compared to its neighbours.
“The latest numbers show that Malaysia’s imports from China are over 14 percent of GDP compared to Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand are all in the single digits. Malaysian exports to China are over 12 percent of GDP compared to Indonesia, which is just over 2 percent, the Philippines under 2 percent, and Thailand under 4 percent, all single digits,” its lead economist for Malaysia, Apurva Sanghi said.
Aside from economic matters, Chong also suggested that Malaysia must strengthen its defense ties with the US as its foremost security partner, besides strengthening ties with Japan, Australia and others as great power rivalry in the region heats up.
“Malaysia should expand military defensive cooperation with Japan and participate in the Reciprocal Access Agreement along with Australia, India and the US. It should also step up its role in its current membership of the Five Powers Defence Arrangement (FPDA) to expand on the security agenda to include a free and open Indo-Pacific.”, he added.
Although moves to join the Quad and considering a role in the formation of the so-called Asian NATO will be a departure of Malaysia’s long standing non-alignment, it cannot afford to maintain its centrality as new threats make this policy obsolete and even backfiring in the long run, Collins argued.
“We have played a leading role in many confidence building measures and conflict prevention mechanisms through existing channels in Asean, but we must strengthen our capacities with the support of the West.
"We must also leverage on the strength of our geography, having a strong position in the Malacca Straits and South China Sea and Asean to increase our collective voice,” he added. - Agencies