One of the unfortunate side effects of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ongoing China-U.S. rebalance has been a flood of overhyped commentary about how Southeast Asia’s ‘dominoes’ are falling to China and defecting from the United States in spite of a more complex reality (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”).
With Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s trip to Beijing this week coming on the heels of Duterte’s visit last month and a string of deliverables coming out from the visit, some have portrayed Malaysia as the latest country to snub the United States and embrace China (See: “Is the Philippines Triggering a ‘Duterte Effect’ in ASEAN?”). Furthermore, some have suggested that this dramatic shift is occurring due to a rather odd mix of reasons, from the permissive conditions Duterte has allegedly created for bandwagoning with Beijing to the opening of a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into a high-profile corruption scandal implicating Najib known as the 1MDB scandal (See: “After the Scandal: What’s Next for Malaysia”).
Though this is all great fodder for some sensationalist headlines, it is also grossly exaggerated and not grounded in reality. Those who seek to understand what is actually going on deserve to get an accurate sense of where Malaysia is both domestically as well as internationally in its alignments with both China and the United States. That means understanding several realities that extend beyond the news cycles this week.
First, Malaysia’s good relationship with China is nothing new. Within Southeast Asia, Malaysia was one of the quickest to grasp the opportunity of engaging a changing China amid a shifting geopolitical environment, becoming the first country in ASEAN to normalize relations with Beijing back in 1974 (under Najib’s father, Tun Razak, a hardly insignificant point in the bilateral relationship today).
That has continued under Najib. Indeed, even before the visit, Sino-Malaysian relations had already been on a steady, upward trajectory, with the two countries upgrading ties to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership back in October 2013 and making inroads subsequently not just on the economic side, but also on defense with the holding of their first ever joint military exercise in 2015 (See: “Malaysia, China Begin First Joint Military Exercise”). Just last year, the relationship got a significant boost with visits by both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. I could go on, but you get the point: Najib’s visit this week represents continuity, not some dramatic change.
Second, Malaysia’s relationship with China is not as cozy as it is publicly portrayed. Though Malaysia may play up the opportunities in the Sino-Malaysian ‘special relationship’ publicly, including in high-profile visits like Najib’s this week, what fleeting observers miss is that the Southeast Asian state has also long been attuned to the challenges that China’s rise pose for decades, and has been sure to both diversify its relationships as well as build up its own capabilities to the extent possible.
That continues today. It is rare that I have had a private conversation with a Malaysian official without some concern being expressed about China and its behavior towards Malaysia and the region more broadly (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing it Safe”). Some of this has played out more publicly in the bilateral relationship than it has in the past in recent years, not only with China’s intrusions into Malaysian waters in the South China Sea, but, to a lesser extent and to varying degrees, a few diplomatic incidents as well such as Beijing’s criticism of Malaysia for the handling of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370 or comments made by the Chinese ambassador last September ahead of a planned pro-government rally which were read as a direct interference in Malaysia’s internal affairs (See: “The Truth About China’s Interference in Malaysia’s Politics”).
Third, Malaysia’s ties with the United States are actually much closer than the rhetoric of its leaders might suggest. Historically, the pattern in U.S.-Malaysia relations, especially under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, was cooperation on certain issues in spite of often fierce disagreements on economic policy, human rights, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, some of which also accounts for wider popular ambivalence towards Washington in Malaysia as well.
By that standard, under Najib, ties have warmed appreciably and become much more comprehensive relatively speaking, with Malaysia being part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, joining the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, and even working towards being part of the U.S. visa waiver program – which, if completed, would be a big boost for people-to-people ties. As early as the end of 2010, then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell was already describing the U.S.-Malaysia relationship as the most improved in Southeast Asia, and the momentum only grew up to the inking of a comprehensive partnership in April 2014 (See: “Getting to Full Bloom in US-Malaysia Relations”). Najib has enjoyed a close personal relationship with Obama as well, with the two even famously golfing together in December 2014.
To be sure, there have been some differences that have limited ties from growing even further, from the deepening 1MDB scandal which led to the DOJ probe to rights issues involving human trafficking and a crackdown on the opposition. But when you see media accounts playing up things like Najib writing an op-ed this week in the state-run China Daily telling the West not to lecture countries on their internal affairs, it is important to remember that this rhetoric – which, by the way, pales in comparison to the fierce anti-Western rants heard during the Mahathir era – exists alongside the reality of strong U.S.-Malaysia cooperation. To cite just one example, this month Malaysia is expected to unveil a new regional counter-messaging center to combat narratives by the Islamic State that it has developed with the help of the United States (See: “When Will Malaysia Launch its New Center to Counter Islamic State Messaging?”).
Fourth and lastly, to the extent that we are seeing Najib currently moving to strengthen relations with China while at the same time hitting out against the West, that is attributable more to domestic developments in Malaysia rather than a dramatic shift in its foreign alignments. At a time when the Malaysian economy is struggling, Najib’s own political position has been stronger than most of his critics expected but still far from secure, and he and the ruling party are gearing up for the next general elections which could take place as early as next year, it would make sense to cozy up to China, which is keen to roll out the red carpet and splash cash, rather than the United States, where rights issues make even the possibility of a state visit unlikely.
It is also important to keep in mind that closer ties with China abroad also feeds into the dynamics at home with respect to Malaysia’s sizable ethnic Chinese minority, as well as the political and economic weight that it possesses. Thought one can debate the extent to which this matters in terms of Najib’s electoral prospects in the Malay-Muslim majority nation, it is a factor that ought not to be ignored.
This speaks to a larger point I keep coming back to: it is important to understand alignment shifts – whether perceived or real – as being the product of a complex range of factors like history, relative capabilities, or domestic politics – rather than advancing convenient but lazy and inaccurate narratives like states succumbing to some kind of domino effect or bowing to the wishes to one power or the other. Most of the states in Southeast Asia were forged amidst great power rivalry, and they are used to alignment shifts much greater than the ones we see today. We do these states – as well as reality– a great disservice when we caricature what is going on in them domestically and internationally.
Furthermore, more specific to the Malaysia case, if we continue to be blinded by the ideological blinkers of U.S.-China rivalry, we may spend too much time obsessing about dramatic alignment shifts that aren’t actually occurring, and miss the more nuanced debates that are happening within some elite circles in the country. For example, well ahead of Najib’s visit to China this year, some in government as well as in the opposition and the elite had wondered whether China’s purchase of government securities or sensitive entitles like 1MDB may tie Malaysia’s (and Najib’s) fate so closely to China that it may limit the country’s ability to push back against Beijing on certain issues like the South China Sea.
This is just one example of the more granular conversations going on in ASEAN capitals about the promises and perils of China’s growing role in Southeast that deserve a more in-depth treatment, as opposed to sloppy news stories about another pivot here or there. Keep that in mind the next time you see a headline suggesting that another Southeast Asian domino has fallen to Beijing.