CHARTING A WIDE COURSE THROUGH A NARROW SEA

Malaysia 2017 | DIPLOMACY | REVIEW

Deft Malaysian diplomacy reassured Beijing of its good intentions without making major concessions in security, trade, or maritime travel; subtly maintained strong ties to the United States; kept Japan in the loop; and held ASEAN together in the face of mounting Chinese pressure.

Though often overshadowed by unfortunate events in Europe, the Middle East, and North America, 2016 was still a momentous year for Southeast Asia. In January 2016, ASEAN agreed to implement its first-ever economic community which, if successful, will have momentous results for both the regional and world economy. In April, the gun-wielding, insult-slinging, karaoke-singing Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines. Though a shock to liberal sensitivities at the time, the election of this off-the-cusp populist now feels rather prescient in light of Brexit, Trump, and the resurgence of openly right-wing movements in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere in the developed world. Then in October came the death of Thailand's King Bhumibol, arguably the regional figure most systematically associated with stability, ethical transcendence, and apolitical continuity. That his death and Dutarte's rise should come on the heels of one another gave Southeast Asia's 2016 zeitgeist a particularly pungent odor. What does any of this mean for Malaysia?

Still licking his wounds from the explosion of the 1MDB scandal in 2015, Prime Minister Najib Razak was somewhat on the defensive in 2016 and looking to mend international relations. With the Obama Doctrine seemingly in tatters over the fall of Aleppo and the resurgence of China in the East Pacific, what would become of the outgoing American president's fateful “pivot to Asia"—especially in regards to Malaysia, if anything a critical partner in ASEAN, a crucial Muslim ally in the fight against transnational Sunni extremism, and a major regional bulwark against Beijing? Coming on the heels of Duterte's visit to Kuala Lumpur in late October 2016, Najib's visit to Beijing in early November left many worried that Malaysia was setting about a major realignment toward China.

After all, the two countries upgraded their comprehensive strategic partnership in 2013, held their first major joint military exercises in 2015, and President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang both visited Malaysia in 2016 to further cement the countries' burgeoning bilateral ties. Nonetheless, fears that Malaysia has joined the Chinese camp are overblown; if anything, the diplomatic progress made between 2013-2016 has merely built upon an already rich tradition of cooperation between the two countries. After all, Malaysia was the first country to formally recognize Red China back in 1974—despite Malaysia's own troubled history with a violent communist insurgency in the 1950s (led predominantly by the country's Chinese minority). That the current Prime Minister's father, Tun Razak, had been the very man to do so makes the current relationship all the stronger. Thus, Najib's much-heralded visit to Beijing in November 2016 represented the continuity of a decades-long relationship, not some radical change.

Mingle Not Meddle With the Middle Kingdom

These improving ties with China also mask the less obvious points of contention and ambiguity that will affect any uneven bilateral relationships. For one, as a maritime nation Malaysia holds a crucial stake in ensuring the South China Sea does not become a Chinese lake. In light of which it is remarkable how quiet they have remained in comparison to Vietnam and the Philippines on this issue. This is what certain observers have called Kuala Lumpur's “quiet diplomacy" vis-à-vis Beijing: they prefer to air their concerns privately to China rather than the considerably more public clamorings of Manila or Ho Chi Minh City. which seems to have been paying off. So far it has not, for example, lent its support to the Philippines' arbitral tribunal against China at The Hague.

That being said, behind the scenes Malaysia has remained adamant to keep ASEAN as unified as possible when it comes to acting as a regional block in regards to broader geopolitical threats. For example, Foreign Minister Anifah Aman did not shy away from announcing ASEAN's desire in 2015 for an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Retreat in Kota Kinabalu that same year, he also mentioned that body's growing concerns with China's ongoing reclamation efforts. After all, Malaysia has a very strong, if not existential, interest in keeping its offshore drilling at full capacity. While not stifling its concerns, Malaysia's criticisms of China—its largest trading partner—always remain within the bounds and civil dictates of “quiet diplomacy." So far, it would seem, so good. What about America?

Aim high, Fake Low

Though a critical US partner during the Cold War, relations between Malaysia and the US often differed under the leadership of Mahathir Mohammad. The country's longest-serving prime minister, in office from 1980-2003, Mahathir was not afraid to air his grievances with US policy, whether they be disagreements on human rights, economic policy, or US foreign policy in the Middle East. On several occasions he butted heads with Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, calling the Universal Declaration of Human Rights an oppressive instrument with which the US imposed its values on Asians. Despite these differences, throughout his tenure the US remained the country's biggest customer while also continuing to train members of the country's top military brass under the International Military Education And Training program in the United States.

All things considered , ties have been considerably warmer since Najib took office in 2009. In the past few years, Malaysia has been a crucial partner in crafting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), joined the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, and is even working toward being part of the US visa waiver program. If the later goes through, it will represent a huge boost in people-to-people ties between the two countries. Within a year of Najib assuming power, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell was already referring to the US-Malaysia relationship as the most improved in all of Southeast Asia. And Najib and Obama are also supposed to have been on close speaking terms, their famous golfing outing in December 2014 said to have cemented a relationship that already saw its formal apogee in the comprehensive partnership agreed earlier that year.

Old habits die hard, and for every superstructural gain, token sacrifices must occasionally be made. Hence, Najib's recent editorial for the China Daily, the state-run English-language organ of the Communist Party of China (CPC), in which he warned Western countries against “interfering in the affairs of other nations," a rather blunt reference to the US' Department of Justice probe into the fallout from 1MDB. Hitting on certain aspects of the US relationship in public whilst cooperating in private is part of an old tradition. In addition to the Malaysian public's traditional ambivalence toward the US (after nearly a quarter century of Mahathir's vituperations), it also makes political sense for Najib to publically warm to China for domestic reasons. If nothing else, it reassures the country's mildly restive Chinese minority who, though prominent in the country's economic life, are often marginalized at the national political level. Thus does Najib's nod to Beijing also make perfect domestic political not to mention material sense. Not for nothing did Najib return in November 2016 with USD33.24 billion worth of rail, defense, and other deals with China.

Bolstering Terms

It is in this context that one ought to analyze Najib's November 2016 trip to Tokyo. Tellingly, one of the Malaysian premier's first priorities on his three-day trip was discussing how to move forward on the TPP with Prime Minister Abe. That this came after the election of the TPP-bashing Donald Trump is extremely revealing for two reasons: one, it demonstrates the strategic importance of the trade agreement to both Asian partners, no matter its current chances of success. Two, it says one of two important things about the US-Pacific relationship: either the TPP and the effort spent crafting it takes precedence over the wishes of President Donald Trump in the minds of Asian leaders; or the latter simply do not take Trump's threats to scrap the agreement as seriously as the candidate who was in large part elected on the very claim of doing so once in office.

The second order of business was the leaders' agreement on the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, a specific reminder that Tokyo is as vigilant about keeping the Pacific waterways as free of Chinese domination as ever. Abe specifically reiterated how any disputes should be resolved on the basis of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As part of this broader effort to encourage good will, Japan marked the occasion by granting two decommissioned sea patrol vessels to Malaysia's coast guard agency. The third priority were preliminary bids about who might help Malaysia build its much sought after high-speed rail (350km/hour) between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Though China is widely seen as the leading bidder, Prime Minister Abe said Najib shared his view that securing the contract was “uppermost in the mind of the government of Japan." While Najib expressed his admiration for Japanese engineering, he also stressed the extent to which “cost efficiency will be the key" to making any decision—a nod to Beijing.

Thus Malaysia's tightrope diplomacy, if one may call it that, was overall rather successful in 2016. It reassured Beijing of its cooperation and good intentions without fawning or making any major concessions in security, trade, or maritime travel; it subtly maintained inwardly strong ties to the US despite (politically useful) outward appearances; it kept Japan in the loop; and it more or less kept ASEAN in tact in the face of mounting Chinese pressures. Thus, the two biggest diplomatic challenges for Malaysia in 2017 will be first, to maintain this delicate balancing act between competing regional and global players, and second, promoting the strength and viability of ASEAN and transnational deals like the TPP in the potentially tumultuous—or simply increasingly isolationist—early years of a Trump presidency.