IT was a surreal moment for myself and many of the Malaysians on board the USNS Fall River.
It isn’t every day that you witness a navy band playing the American national anthem, Star Spangled Banner, on board a US military vessel in Malaysian territorial waters.
The navy band proceeded to play the Negaraku, which was a proud moment for us because the military personnel on board saluted and gave our national anthem the reverence it deserved. We were in Kuching at the invitation of the US Embassy to witness the closing ceremony of the Pacific Partnership 2019.
The US Navy calls it “the largest annual multilateral all-hazards preparedness mission in the Indo-Pacific region”. In essence, the United States collaborates with its South-East Asian partners for medical, dental, veterinary and engineering civic action programmes to ensure these countries are better prepared in times of natural disaster and crisis.
This year, the 14th iteration of the Pacific Partnership, saw Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands joining the US in the annual disaster response preparedness exercise. It started at the US Naval base of Guam on March 4 and ended in Kuching on April 11.
“Pacific Partnership is about building trust and sharing knowledge,” the commander of the mission, Rear Admiral Joey Tynch, said after the closing ceremony.
That may be the case, as the US, since the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004, has been at the forefront of training and supporting disaster relief efforts in the region, but Malaysia and South-East Asia are also viewed as a strategic bulwark against China’s expansionist efforts in the South China Sea.
Coincidentally, the closing ceremony was held a few days before Malaysia concluded its multibillion-ringgit East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) deal with China. Construction works on the controversial project linking Port Klang to Kota Baru are expected to resume as early as next month.
China views the ECRL project as an important part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a hugely ambitious trade and infrastructure plan involving more than 65 countries and was introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.
Construction of the rail project, delayed by two years, will see costs reduced to RM44bil after nine months of negotiations between the two governments.
The government’s initial move to terminate the ECRL deal caused consternation in Beijing because the Chinese government viewed the double-tracking project as a key component of BRI that would considerably reduce the time needed for transportation of goods and material.
But as China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, his government is happy that the matter has been settled through friendly negotiation.
“China and Malaysia are good neighbours and partners which view each other’s friendship with importance,” he was reported to have said.
The conclusion of the ECRL deal as well as the Pacific Partnership 2019 shows Malaysia’s importance as a strategic location in the South China Sea to both China and the US.
UKM senior lecturer at the faculty of strategic studies and international relations Dr Farizal Mohd Razalli calls it a game of geopolitics.
“Malaysia is performing a delicate balancing act between the two superpowers, and this should be our foreign policy. Forget about making ourselves useful to China and the US; focus instead on making ourselves strategic,” he told me in Kuching.
Dr Farizal, who was in Beijing and Dalian earlier this year, said that Chinese academics were in awe of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
“They respect him because as any smart politician would do, he started by discrediting his predecessor and then managed to get Beijing back to the negotiating table to relook into many of the deals the previous administration had signed off on,” he explained.
The jury is still out on the merits of the ECRL deal. The numbers may have come down, but the long-term benefits are still debatable. The fact though is China was the third biggest export market for Malaysia in 2018 after the European Union and the United States.
The Pakatan Harapan administration had said the communist republic would remain a top trade partner despite a rocky start to their relationship over a slew of infrastructure projects involving Chinese state companies. Malaysia just cannot afford to antagonise China.
Where does this leave the US? Washington is naturally concerned about China flexing its military and economic might in the South China Sea. And that is why Malaysia is viewed as crucial for a US naval presence in the Straits of Malacca as well as the South China Sea.
As Admiral Tynch told me, the US and Malaysia have continued to build a relationship that is over 60 years old.
“Everywhere I went, I could see the relationship between our young officers, young soldiers and young sailors. And this relationship is just solid and steadfast moving into the future,” he said.
The writer believes that Malaysia plays a crucial role in the region’s geopolitics and should continue to practise a foreign policy based on the principle of neutrality. But Putrajaya must also ensure the country’s interests are always safeguarded and never at the expense of any one superpower.