Last week, with a series of comments on the United States and China, Malaysia’s outspoken, returning Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad raised questions about the extent to which his government had in fact changed its approach toward the two powers. Though that question is difficult to answer, with the new government in office for under a year and so much uncertain on domestic as well as foreign policy, what is clear at this point is that while the Mahathir government has no doubt recalibrated ties with both Washington and Beijing, it is far too premature to conclude that major change is underway and will sustain into the future.
As I have noted previously in these pages and elsewhere, as expected, Najib Razak’s ouster and the return of Mahathir in Malaysia has prompted a series of questions about what this may mean for Malaysia’s foreign policy. Unsurprisingly, much of the focus has been on Malaysia’s ties with the United States and China, even though Malaysian foreign policy is in fact rooted in a more diversified and complex set of relationships with neighboring states, key countries in the broader Asia-Pacific region and the world, and major powers that include Washington and Beijing but also others such as India and Japan, which had been a key focus for Mahathir during his previous stint as prime minister. There has also been an emphasis on Mahathir’s remarks in and of themselves, which, though partly a product of his perceived outsized role in the formulation of Malaysian foreign policy, is also a reflection of his own personal tendency to be outspoken on major geopolitical issues irrespective of Malaysia’s actual specific positions as well as the search for regional voices on these questions by outside observers.
These questions have continued to be raised with a focus on Mahathir’s words and the discrete Malaysian government actions – whether it be his disturbing anti-Semitic comments or Malaysia’s suspension of high-profile projects related to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (See: “How Far Does the Belt and Road Pushback Really Go?”). This trend will likely continue through the rest of 2019 as well, in line expected engagements such as his trip to China for the Belt and Road Summit in April as well as remarks he will offer on the sidelines of other foreign visits and in other interviews and press conferences.
A case in point emerged last week, when Mahathir once again weighed in on his government’s approach to the United States and China. First, in an exclusive interview with The South China Morning Post, Mahathir reiterated previous issues he has raised about both China and the United States to varying degrees, noting that Malaysia viewed Beijing as strategically important but also had concerns about the terms of economic engagement and its political system, and that the Southeast Asian state was worried about Washington’s unpredictability under U.S. President Donald Trump. And then, during his visit to the Philippines, where he held a second summit meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Mahathir issued a pointed warning about the consequences of countries relying too much on money from Beijing without due regard for the implications that reverberated across Philippine and international media.
As is often the case, the shorter, punchier headlines that emerged from Mahathir’s remarks did not reflect the granularity of his much longer reflections, which he has repeated multiple times since his return to power and are much more nuanced when read in their entirety and in context. Nonetheless, it raised a more fundamental and substantive question: to what extent has Malaysia’s approach toward China and the United States changed thus far under the new government, now led by Mahathir?
Truly answering this question requires looking less at what Mahathir says and more at what Malaysia does, in part due to the fact that both of his tenures as prime minister have seen a divergence between the two in several notable instances. Seen from this perspective, to the extent that there is change in Malaysia’s approach to the United States and China, it is in the fact that in contrast to Najib, who had doubled down on Malaysia’s ties with both powers, Mahathir has been more cautious about the extent of Malaysia’s engagement with the two at the outset. That is evident from several instances, from the government’s slowing of Belt and Road projects from China to its vague declaration of “neutrality” with respect to the South China Sea dispute as a means to convey its unwillingness to take sides on major power involvement there.
But, at the same time, at this point, it is much too premature to conclude that this ongoing recalibration is translating or will translate into fundamental change on the part of the country. First, the nature and scope of that recalibration itself remains unclear. While Malaysia has been taking actions with respect to issues where it disagrees with Beijing and Washington – be it stopping some deportations of Uyghurs or publicly protesting the Trump administration’s approach on the Israel-Palestine issue – most of the other aspects of ties have actually been continuing, including Malaysia’s purchase of naval vessels from China or the engagement of some U.S. businesses as part of a bid to boost foreign investment into the country. Contrary to some accounts, which have ascribed geopolitical motivations to Malaysia’s actions, Malaysian officials, including Mahathir himself, have been emphasizing that they are in fact more domestic-focused and area- or project-specific.
Second, it still remains unclear whether that ongoing, focused recalibration will lead to broader, fundamental change. Amid the initial caution Mahathir and the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government have demonstrated with respect to China and the United States, there is still a sense that Malaysia is leaving the door open to how it will pursue ties with both countries. For instance, with respect to Beijing, it is notable that Mahathir has raised questions about BRI projects but was also among the first to confirm his attendance at the BRI summit next month and has held out on publicly declaring a final stance on Huawei’s role in Malaysia. Similarly, despite Mahathir’s rhetoric about Trump’s unpredictability as a leader and the fact that the two leaders did not meet during Mahathir’s visit to New York for the UN General Assembly last year, working-level engagements between the two governments are nonetheless continuing. That is important to note because Mahathir’s previous stint as premier saw a dynamic where strident rhetorical criticism of the United States occurred even amid closer security cooperation with Washington.
It should be noted too that we have also yet to see both China and the United States themselves fundamentally adjust how they are approaching the new Malaysian government, which could in turn affect how the PH government’s initial tendencies may translate into more finalized positions. Beijing in particular has proven to be open to adjusting the shape of its ongoing trade and investment with Malaysia in reaction to Mahathir’s reservations about some specific projects, no doubt in part due to its desire to preserve good relations with the Southeast Asian state. Mahathir has also publicly indicated that he is open to closer engagement with Beijing even on the more challenging aspects of ties should those terms in fact change to Malaysia’s liking.
Third and finally, even if Mahathir adopts a changed approach, it remains unclear whether this will endure for the PH government in the coming years. Some of Mahathir’s views of China and the United States are rooted in his own personal thoughts that are not necessarily shared by others in the PH government, and we have yet to see these differences play out and be resolved in part because there has not been a fundamental articulation of what foreign policy is beyond Mahathir’s own views. While we may see greater clarity on this as we get past some useful upcoming signposts in 2019, such as the expected release of a new defense white paper, as of now the reality is that foreign policy is still very much in a testing period where only initial tendencies and general priority areas are evident.
Looking still further ahead, for all the focus on Mahathir himself, it remains unclear for how long Mahathir will actually be at the helm, with an agreement in place for him to transition power to his former deputy prime minister turned opposition leader turned prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim within around two years or so (See: “How Would Anwar Ibrahim Change Malaysia’s Foreign Policy as Prime Minister?”). While it is unclear if and when this will materialize and what its effects may be – especially with relatively little known about Anwar’s foreign policy views relative to Mahathir’s – the point is that one ought not to just assume that the initial tendencies we have seen in the first year of a new government will necessarily be sustained up to the point where it is contesting the next Malaysian election.
All this is not to say that we may not eventually see more profound and striking changes in Malaysia’s approach to China and the United States under the new PH government. But it is to say that, as of now, we have yet to see that sort of change occur with respect to the country’s alignments, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that it is or to infer too much from what its officials are saying rather than what the country is or is not doing.