Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir stated that Malaysia needs to adopt an approach to be seen as a middle power with a pragmatic policy in facing current geopolitical challenges, and that a balanced and nuanced policy is crucial for Malaysia to avoid being perceived as leaning too much to any particular power, with the need to ensure that the non-aligned policy to bring positive impact.
Malaysia has for decades adherently stuck to its neutrality stance, with bouts of hedging and balancing in trying to adjust and accommodate the different facets of security architectures and challenges. The rapid changes in regional threats and the prospects of looming high intensity conflicts render this past fixation on this concept to be risky and dangerous.
There is little to no sense of urgency of threats, that entraps the country with this reluctance to shift the orientations with the fear of upsetting the apple cart. Obvious security changes have been seen on the ground since the growing tensions and bellicosity in the South China Sea especially for the past decade, but the volume of responses has been disproportionate, compared to other regional members. The Ukraine invasion by Moscow has transformed the entire spectrum of international security unseen since WWII, and this created a new realm of possibilities of intent and has effectively discarded any previous nuances or expected status quo in conventional security architecture.
Being non-aligned brings the worst outcome, as neither side will provide the best returns and when a full blown conflict is triggered, it is too late to start posturing.
The risks of being neutral far supersede the risks of taking sides, especially when prospects for conflicts increase and internal deterrent capacity is insufficient. Regional scrambles to shore up assurances and support have seen the likes of Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, Hanoi and Jakarta all ramping up their efforts to bolster their external partnerships and alliances and in maximising returns on their security and defence postures.
ASEAN and Malaysia cannot rely on the same old approach of hedging and balancing without fresh ideas and mechanisms of change. Finland is now part of NATO, after more than seven decades of strict neutrality stance. This is a natural response to the growing threat in Europe from Moscow, and events in Ukraine. Sweden is set to join soon, when Turkey withdrew its series of objections. Finland remains the most vulnerable, sharing a long border with Russia and facing the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis. Finland’s small population but relatively decent military capacity render Helsinki to be vulnerable, with little deterrent capacity against the might of Moscow. The common sense strategic move is to seek assured support in a defensive partnership mechanism.
While Russia has threatened retaliatory measures against Finland should it join NATO, Russian cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and occasional airspace violations are more likely than an outright major hard power move.
When a war breaks out, there is no more regard for neutrality, if it requires that the particular country be at the receiving end of the best interests of the war perpetrator or to be used as a leverage or a message to the enemy, then it will be implicated directly. Machiavelli’s the end justifies the means mantra is the primary argument in the theory of realism in international relations, and to realists, it is the ultimate factor in guiding responses and policies.
As in Trump’s Peace through Strength mantra, weaknesses breed further aggressions, and this has been the primary model of Trump’s global security approach in enhancing the hard power deterrent capacity of the US, in deterring violations of the rules based order.
Both ASEAN and Malaysia remain trapped in the mentality of regional fear, the fear of the inevitable backlash from neighbouring threats if we were to break the decades old norm of regional spirit.
The African saying of the grass being trampled if elephants fight has often been quoted, and the most strategic way to avoid that will be to ensure that the grass will not be trampled in the first place, by aligning with secured assurances.
It is hard to distinguish real friends and enemies, and there are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations.However, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and when threats are similar, there will be strategic interests in enhancing cooperation based on interdependence of needs and a trust based approach. Future partnerships or alliances may not be framed entirely from this fulcrum alone, and the partnership must be based on a proven trajectory of values and trust. For this, the traditional model of freedom and democracy and a rules-based governance remains the best path.
The great power shift is not necessarily flowing from West to East, it is a misconception to argue that the West is now on the decline and the future belongs to the East in an Asian century. The long term resilience and strategic fundamentals of the West, especially in a value based approach and a sustainable progressive leadership in hard and soft power dominance and economic and technological spectrum, are enduring and consistent.
The West still holds the key to technology, economy and military strength and primacy. The East or the South are holding certain advantages in the economic and trade realms but are not sustainable due to the cracks on the state led derivation model. Focused efforts on specific industries to churn out higher output in lower costs might produce relative edge in then short term calculation, but the unsustainable essence of this cycle will not produce long term desired consistency, as can be seen now in the internal demographic and socio-economic downturn in China with rising unemployment, lower economic prospects and the exodus of critical investments and firms. Power parity still remains at the hands of the West, involving a truer sense of assessment and power impact theory in the long run.
It is naïve to think that Malaysia or Asean will be safe if they were to continue the approach of non-alignment, as the region is now at the powder keg of conflicts which will drag the region into the abyss of wars and conflicts directly.
The escalating arms races and security dilemma, worsened by the dwindling impact of the various conflict prevention mechanisms and confidence building measures, are all obvious signs of looming risks and urgency ahead.
Malaysia has been hedging and balancing for the past several decades, and the returns to its long term interests have not been properly analysed and debated.
The defence and deterrence capacity relies on the pursuit of strategic assets from a variety of sources, but they are not enough to fully guarantee Malaysia’s survival against the evolving threats, and they are not capable of forming a credible deterrence. Kuala Lumpur has been relying to a predominant extent, the goodwill of others to lessen their actions and measures and to rely on existing conflict prevention platforms including the ARF, ADMM and others that yielded little returns.
Other neighbouring players have upped their hard power capacity, and we find ourselves lagging in a comprehensive strategic approach in dealing with the rivalry of the century and in facing both the US and China.
Being neutral would only create greater leverage to external powers in seizing upon this to up their carrot and stick approaches and existing measures including economic coercion and potential blackmail and grey zone tactics which have been happening to the region and other countries for years.
A credible and direct deterrent capacity based on external partnership and alliance will transcend beyond the efforts and impact of building one’s own internal hard power capacity, which will take years and decades to be fully impactful.
A direct and clear involvement in alliance building, either through initiating a new regional defensive and security arrangement in the form of a new SEATO or an expanded mini NATO or Asian NATO setting, or a bilateral defensive alliance like in the case of Seoul, Tokyo and Manila with the US, provide direct deterrent capacity and in deterring any form of destabilising and aggressive behaviours in the region.
Even in Asia, there is no single Asian solidarity framework or spirit, it is still fragmented based on historical discord and animosity, and there is no Asean regional spirit either, as it is still divided by mutual mistrust and distrust.
In forming and choosing a trusted and value based partnership, the principles of freedom, rule of law and democracy form the ultimate parameters. From Japan to India, the arch of democracy and adherence to a rules based order is the foundation of a credible, solid and dependable axis of alliance that value mutually beneficial policy returns on trade, investment, resources, supply chain, energy and food security, which will translate into the priority of assured security and defence support in all levels of the field.
The region is no longer in the era of the Cold War where being neutral can safeguard one from direct economic or hard power implications. For this current security entanglement, no one can be safe or be shielded from the fallout of the regional and global disorder and conflicts. To minimise the implications, the least one can do is to build a new integrated economic and security bulwark that is based on long term values, trust and principles pillared on the moral high ground and not on easy, cheap and short term addictive reliance on easy sources and resources that can entrap one’s future options.
The 2027 timeframe argued to be the imminent action on Taiwan, the scramble for critical resources, Pyongyang’s squeezed timeframe and usage of ballistic missile leverage, Moscow’s increasing trap and Beijing’s limited timeframe and options all provide new portrayal of security urgencies and risks calculations on regional and global threats. This includes the increased nuclear power postures in the region and the risks of a nuclear fallout in the South China Sea.
Some might argue that Japan might face the risks of direct attack from Beijing if it was to make a move on Taiwan, in halting the support bases from Okinawa and in targeting the US forces there to reduce the impact of the second strike responses from the US, despite Japan being a staunch security ally with the US. This further reinforces the need for a credible defence partner and alliance even more, because if that could happen to a strong military power with a solid defence pact, other countries with no security assurances will be worse off.
The region’s fear of economic retaliation remains the primary stumbling block to changes in the security orientations, and it remains complacent on the sense of urgency of threats, with flashpoints all encircling the country and region from South China Sea to Taiwan to the Indian Ocean.
Malaysia remains a middle power, and does not have the capacity to self-generate enough credible deterrence other than diplomatic and dialogue reliance. Being a small to middle power requires credible, smart and strategic external assurances and support.
However, it has the strategic capacity to set regional pace and to send a real message to allies and potential threats alike. Any potential fallout from conflicts will impact the country directly, and it will be too late to initiate any real changes in its policy and affiliations by then.
Building effective alliance and support will need time and trust and integration of efforts and interoperability of assets and capacity. Malaysia now remains stuck in the dogma of tacit responses and portraying conflicting and grey zone messaging spectrum by not stating clearly its stance and orientations. On one hand it yearns for counterbalancing measures and support from the West to deter aggression in the region, but it does not state publicly. On the other, it remains subdued by the overwhelming Beijing pressure and presence in the region on hard power and economic realms.
The region is in dire need of a new model of power relations in the region, and Malaysia is in a strategic position to form a new security partnership either bilaterally or in a regional setting alongside Jakarta, Manila, Singapore, Hanoi and Bangkok, but it first needs to jettison its decades old trap.
Areas of maritime security and regional stability underpins the need to explore the formation of a revived SEATO or the creation of a five-power cooperative framework in safeguarding maritime security and transboundary challenges in the form of a potential new Malaysia-Indonesia-India-Singapore-Australia or the MIISA Partnership.
These include crucial partners in Australia, Singapore and India in ensuring a free and open Indo Pacific and the security and stability in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. This will provide a more focused concentration of resources and strength in areas of maritime security and a rules based order, the blue economy and in upholding sustainable supply chain and maritime activities from the existing mechanisms including Eyes in the Sky, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA),the Quad, the Five Powers Defence Arrangement (FPDA) in which some of these five countries are already in alliance with.
Amidst friendshoring initiatives and decoupling and de-risking ventures, Malaysia needs to have its own version of all-of- nation integrated strategic responses.
The notion of the economic spectrum is often separated from the workings of security and foreign policy, but now Kuala Lumpur needs to consolidate to better and more strategically streamline its advantage and asset derivation.
Critical resources including rare earths, semiconductor, palm oil, rubber and others need to be managed in cohort and strategic amalgamation to its own policy advantage in an integrated foreign policy tool, and to use them as a better and more coordinated leverage and increased chips and cards.
This is critical to ensure Malaysia is not beholden to an external power’s exploit,particularly Chinese economic blackmail and coercion, and to position itself in the realm of industry and economic reformation based on values and quantifiable returns.
If Malaysia or the region continue the same approach but expect a different result, that is ignorance and naivety on their part.
History will judge whether the persistence on this approach will benefit or backfire on Malaysia’s national interests.
Foreign policy direction and the stance of neutrality have always largely been consistent for Malaysia regardless of political changes, and are often accommodated for local internal political needs, which is also a reflection of similar conditions on other regional players. The region remains plagued by the difficulties in initiating needed reforms to their orientations and in projecting a new security domain that is feared to challenge the status quo or to antagonise long held patrons to its economic sphere.
This discourse needs to transcend a far bigger picture than short term ignorance or gains alone, to ensure a resilient and sustainable outcome in the long term projection. It will require uneasy changes and initial implications but the returns on the country and the region’s future survival and interests will far supersede difficulties at present.