Malaysia-India Defense Ties in the Spotlight With Air Force Chief Visit

A closer look at the wider significance of a recent trip within the context of bilateral security relations.

Malaysia-India Defense Ties in the Spotlight With Air Force Chief Visit

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a keynote address at the opening dinner of the 17th IISS Shangri-la Dialogue, an annual defense and security forum in Asia, in Singapore, Friday, June 1, 2018, in Singapore.

Credit: AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim

Earlier this month, India’s air force chief paid a visit to Malaysia. The trip, which was part of a wider Southeast Asia voyage that also included a stop in Myanmar, put the focus on the ongoing activity in the defense ties between India and Malaysia amid wider domestic and regional changes.

As I have noted before in these pages, India and Malaysia have long had a defense relationship as part of their wider bilateral ties. The defense relationship includes various components like exchanges, military training courses, visits, and exercises. Both sides have also been looking to further boost ties, with notable developments in early 2018 including the holding of the first-ever joint army exercise between the two sides through mid-May.

That pattern has continued on following the election of a new Malaysian government in May, which saw the return of former premier Mahathir Mohamad to power. Engagement began early on, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi choosing to quickly interact with the new government in late May. Malaysia was one of two Southeast Asian countries Modi visited (the other being Indonesia) ahead of the delivery of his much-anticipated keynote address on India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific at this year’s iteration of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

Other interactions have also occurred even if they have been missed by the headlines, with an example being the holding of the first-ever air force exercise between the two sides at Subang Air Base in August, following the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) inaugural participation in Exercise Pitch Black in Australia. The holding of the exercise came amid heightened scrutiny on Malaysia’s own air force capabilities, as had been candidly raised by Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu.

Earlier this month, the defense side of the relationship was in the spotlight again with the visit of Indian Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa to Malaysia. His trip was part of a wider voyage that saw him also visit Myanmar in what the IAF characterized as an effort to boost defense collaboration between countries of strategic importance to New Delhi in the region.

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Dhanoa’s three-day visit to Malaysia in early September had various engagements, including meetings with a range of Malaysian defense officials such as his Malaysian counterpart as well as Defense Minister Mohamad. The notable advancements in defense ties in recent months, including between the two air forces, remaining agenda items yet to be advanced, as well as broader regional security issues of common interest, no doubt provided enough fodder for conversations between the two sides.

Unsurprisingly, few specifics were officially disclosed publicly in the way of details of what was discussed between the two sides. Ahead of the visit, the IAF said in a brief statement that the visit was expected to provide further impetus to strengthen defense cooperation and pave the way for greater interactions in the future. How exactly all of this will play out is likely to become clearer in the months that follow.