Canberra’s Malaysia Advantage in Countering China

The visit by Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles to Malaysia last week, who is also the Defence Minister, cemented the ever critical ties between the two nations that are underpinned by solid historical friendship and bond. H.E. Richard, who is also the Defence Minister, has laid out a strong foundation of strategic bilateral interdependence on crucial areas of mutual needs especially in the realm of defence and security.

The ingrained defence ties and mutual dependence on one another’s strategic advantage and assets remain a cornerstone of a robust and resilient bulwark of joint deterrence capacity and consolidation of integrated security postures in facing renewed challenges and threats facing both nations in the region and beyond.

Primary to this will be the FPDA framework that continues to underline the crux of Malaysia’s defence needs. Canberra has been proven to be a trusted, reliable and durable security partner that stretched for decades, and this needs to be wisely protected and built on by Kuala Lumpur. The defence ties are cemented by compelling common threats and a need for mutual galvanisation of complementing assets and advantages in maximising readiness and interoperability capacity.

Canberra’s strategic presence in the country;s security domain including the importance of Rifle Company Butterworth and Operation Gateway, underscored the critical need to improve coordination, integration and interoperability capabilities in presenting both a strategic message to external threats and to provide multiplier effects in safeguarding maritime security and upholding international law, particularly freedom of navigation and overflight and maritime domain awareness in adhering to the principles of UNCLOS.

Canberra needs to deepen its regional trust, acceptance and support in the face of the new Beijing threat, and strengthening existing allies in the region and winning new ones remain the key. This regional importance to Australia transcends both for soft and hard power enhancement and in shoring up defence diplomacy and in strengthening existing allies network.

Malaysia remains critical for Canberra because of its geostrategic location and in utilising existing Australian military assets and capacity in the country. The forces and assets in Butterworth provide a strategic advantage to Australia in having a closer point to the entrance of Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, providing shorter connecting point to Nicobar Islands Chain and now having presence in both the exit and entry points into Indian Ocean from West Australia and in the tip of Strait of Malacca.

This also provides greater interoperability capacity with existing Quad allies especially India, and to play a stronger role with enhanced presence in critical chokepoints in the Strait of Malacca, complementing the advantage near to other two entry points to the Indian Ocean through the Lombok and Sunda Straits in which the near vicinity of the Aukus base in Perth serves as a crucial advantage for Canberra and the West.

Malaysia is seen as critical in both serving as dependable joint deterrent capacity in terms of providing support bases for renewed presence in the South China Sea including potential bases and docking support facilities for AUKUS submarines, and also in serving as the vital buffer zone against Beijing, together with Singapore and Indonesia.

Malaysia is still depended upon as one of the prime movers of ASEAN,and Canberra will need Malaysia’s leadership and foresight in ensuring that ASEAN does not further fall deeper into the orbit of China. It will need Kuala Lumpur at the very least, to maintain its neutrality and to reassure the region’s architecture to remain independent and free from the heightened influence and power seeking activities of Beijing.

The message will be that Canberra is not the only country that will provide the defensive bulwark, as it will also represent the West as a whole, especially involving the US and the UK under the framework of AUKUS, Quad and FPDA.

Kuala Lumpur will benefit the most from the increased overtures and joint deterrent capacity that Canberra now attracts,through the exploration of different levels of strategic defence returns ranging from increased deterrent credibility to a more reassuring military support and potential second strike capacity in the case of a full blown conflict or the potential of a protracted one. The deterrent patrols by AUKUS submarines in the future will bring positive and stabilising tone of assurances to Malaysia and the region, and Malaysia must be wise and strategic in utilising this opening to align itself with the greater moral high ground that is based on values, norms and status quo of collective preservation of the rules based order, which is going to be fought for and maintained by the overarching Western collective capacity.

Kuala Lumpur remains the oldest and one of the most trusted defence partners of Canberra, with the Australians having contributed to nation building and its protection of its security and sovereignty in the early days of its formation. This factor will be highlighted in pushing for the argument that an old trusted friend in times of need during early post colonial era, will be more valuable and dependable than risking the potential uncertainties and vulnerabilities of cosying up to a rising regional hegemonic power, in lacking the direct will to have greater public overtures to Western and Australian defence support in fear of upsetting the apple cart.

With a flurry of measures to ward off Beijing’s increasing hard power postures and a hardened playbook exacerbated by its squeezed economy and a fast closing time frame for its 2049 Rejuvenation Dream, Canberra will need more than Aukus or Quad alone in the scramble to provide a clear and credible short term deterrence in a joint integrated capacity. While the long game might play into the favour of Australia with consistent inflow of US led military support with a strengthened security umbrella, the short game will see a much riskier outlook of vulnerability for Canberra.

Facing encroaching Chinese naval presence and power projections in the Pacific Island states to its Eastern flank, and a renewed ambition by Beijing to challenge the status quo naval supremacy of the Delhi and Washington in the Indian Ocean to its Western flank, Australia is facing its highest threat level in decades, and will need a security assurance more than the traditional hard power counterbalancing capacity alone. The two Aukus bases in strategic locations in Perth and in Port Kembla in eastern Australia reflect the geostrategic urgency in facing Beijing’s increasingly assertive moves.

Washington will continue to be the overarching security provider for Canberra, and plans for a new site for hypersonic missile testing ground in the country further reaffirm the importance of Australia as the closest Western presence in the Indo Pacific in deterring China.

Aukus has been chastised by many in the region and obviously Beijing itself, being accused of destabilising the region’s security landscape and in instigating a nuclear arms race. It has been made a convenient scapegoat despite the fact that those will be nuclear powered and not nuclear armed, and that the region is already home to nuclear powered and potentially nuclear armed submarines by external powers.

The various joint exercises as seen in the recent Malabar exercise of all four Quad nations in Australia and the tripartite joint interoperability exercise in the South China Sea involving more than 2,000 Australian and Philippine defence personnel, as well as U.S. Marines, are a reflection of the urgency and the importance of reasserting the rules based normative platform of ensuring all parties to play by the same rules in upholding maritime security and ensuring the freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and especially in assuring the rights of nations to fully be entitled to their enshrined rights in the established zones of the EEZ and territorial integrity.

The combined responses and the deterrent capacities as shown in the different scramble to uphold the rights of nations in maritime domain, including Aukus, are a natural response to Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and rules violating behaviours that have caused jitters and regional unease. To label these moves as destabilising are a misplaced conception, when they are there to serve a much needed stabilising and deterrent role to any norms-changing activities that will harm international stability.

No other external drive and capacities are capable of exerting the push and creating a principle laden approach in giving the support and international trust and legitimacy in calling out bad behaviours and providing the backing to nations under the siege of rules violating behaviours and coercions other than the combined hard power and normative rules-based affiliation of the soft power trust of the integrated West. For this, Malaysia needs to play the long game and align with the trusted partners that have proven their worth and consistency in preserving the status quo of a free and open Indo Pacific.

Future benefits of reaping the returns of a potential deeper affiliation and partnerships are greater than any perceived risks involved, and existing mechanisms including Quad, Aukus, Five Eyes, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, IPEF or the Blue Dot Network collectively provide a far larger and overwhelming sphere of stability, confidence and trust both in security and economic returns and the long term value-based assurances.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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