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Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (right) shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a joint press conference at the foreign ministry in Putrajaya on July 12. Photo: AFP/Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Letters | Malaysia’s China pivot may make it richer – but also more vulnerable

  • Trapped between a rock and a hard place, Kuala Lumpur needs China’s market, trade and resources to shore up its stagnating economy but also faces an increased security vulnerability as a result
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Malaysia marked its 65th year of independence two weeks ago. As it signalled its intention to become a middle-power nation, recent developments have exposed its foreign policy vulnerabilities.

Malaysia’s progress has been a mixed bag – the envy of many while also looking like a spent force to some. Over the decades, its foreign policy orientation, from being pro-West to adopting non-alignment, has produced mixed results. But its latest pivot to China puts it on a path of vulnerability.

It encourages reliance on the quick and easy solutions Beijing is happy to offer. The generous returns from the Belt and Road Initiative projects to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are shaping up to an addictive dependence on Chinese capital and markets.

Kuala Lumpur is trapped between a rock and a hard place. It needs China’s critically vital market, trade and resources to shore up its stagnating economy and plug the systemic hole of abuses and corruption, but also faces an increased security vulnerability as an unintended trade-off.

Why Malaysia’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ approach to China is deliberate

Once wary of Beijing’s sway in local affairs, statesman Mahathir Mohamad now encourages a stronger pivot to China, accusing Washington and the West of provoking Beijing. His anti-West approach has been strategically capitalised by Beijing in amplifying China’s cultural and economic persuasion.

Beijing is seen as here to stay while Washington appears distant and erratic, reflecting both the fear and optimism faced by policymakers, and Kuala Lumpur’s inability to jettison its status quo with China.

Sensing the prevailing sentiment and Malaysia’s tied hands, Beijing has emphasised the rich shared legacy between both countries dating back centuries. This legacy is projected as peaceful and friendly in contrast with the West’s approach, pictured as deceitful and exploitative with stains of colonialism and exploitation.

Any deviation from the norm of Asean centrality or pandering to Western power will invite retaliation and affect Malaysia’s recovery efforts. Facing greater economic vulnerability and the need to meet internal political needs, Kuala Lumpur finds it increasingly difficult to realign its foreign affairs in dealing with Beijing and the West.

Western measures to counterbalance China’s influence in the region – including the Aukus alliance, a security pact between Australia, the UK and the US, and the increased military and economic overtures – have been discreetly welcomed but publicly rebuked. Malaysia’s responses to Chinese flights over contested waters off its coast and other coercive measures have been subdued, relying on quiet, back-door diplomacy.

Malaysia – indeed, the region – is unwilling to confront China and lacks a long-term strategic plan to manage this.

In this region, centrality, whether held by a nation or a regional grouping, in effect gives Beijing a free hand to dictate and shape the regional security architecture to its strategic calculations.

Collins Chong Yew Keat, Selangor, Malaysia