Malaysia’s Seemingly Chaotic Foreign Policy Choices Make Strategic Sense

Malaysia is sticking with its Cold War-era strategy of selective alignment and strategic ambiguity.

Malaysia’s Seemingly Chaotic Foreign Policy Choices Make Strategic Sense
Credit: Pixabay

Recent statements by Malaysian leaders during international events must have exasperated even the most casual observers of Asian strategic affairs. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, speaking at the 25th International Conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo on May 30, stated that Malaysia will work closely with China despite a worldwide U.S.-led anti-Huawei 5G campaign, and stood firmly with China by announcing that Malaysia will embrace Huawei’s 5G technology. A short while later, during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 1, Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu mentioned that Malaysia’s navy has smaller naval vessels compared with China’s coast guard ships in the South China Sea, hence (we can invoke the spirit of the Melian Dialogue here) Malaysia is not in a position to challenge Chinese claims and actions. Paradoxically, and quietly, Malaysia also accepted 12 ScanEagle drones from the U.S. government (fully sponsored by the United States under its Maritime Surveillance Initiative), to augment its maritime domain awareness – that is, to gather intelligence and monitor Malaysia’s maritime interests from the air.

This mix of different Malaysia foreign policy strategies appears confusing and not to make coherent strategic sense. But as Malaysia’s strategic history will demonstrate, Malaysia practiced a combination of selective alignment and strategic ambiguity during the Cold War that managed to secure Malaysia from a myriad of threats and prosper economically. These strategies are still used by Malaysia today, albeit in a different strategic setting. After all, Mahathir cut his teeth as a savvy political leader in those precarious Cold War days.

Malaysia’s 1963 formation — consisting of Malaya (independent since 1957), Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore — was strongly opposed by Indonesia, which saw the formation of Malaysia as a ploy by the United Kingdom (with covert U.S. support) to contain Indonesia’s rising influence in the region. Indonesia launched a “Ganyang Malaysia” or “crush Malaysia” campaign to disrupt Malaysia’s formation, initially using political, economic, and propaganda means, and later an undeclared war known as the Konfrontasi. The Indonesia-Malaysia Konfrontasi ended in 1966 and to prevent future conflicts in the region, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967.

After learning lessons from the Konfrontasi and as a member of the newly formed ASEAN, Malaysia appeared to have had shifted its foreign policy stance to neutrality and nonalignment to avoid another military confrontation. Malaysia actively sought to change the geopolitical dynamics of the Southeast Asia region via ASEAN to portray the region as being neutral. By focusing on ASEAN’s core principles of nonintervention in each other’s internal affairs, mutual respect, and equidistance with both Communist and Western powers, Malaysia hoped to buttress the region from threats of intervention by either side, which could lead to proxy wars breaking out (at that point a number of proxy wars were being fought in parts of Africa, South America, and Asia).

The ongoing Vietnam War stalemate and accompanying suspicions that the United States was becoming frustrated with the war and abandoning its military commitment in Southeast Asia worried Malaysia. The announcement of the “Nixon Doctrine” at the end of 1969 vindicated these fears. Without a credible and powerful defense ally in the region, Malaysia knew that it had to change its foreign policy posture in order to secure itself from intervention by ideological powers. Kuala Lumpur thus embarked on a new set of foreign affairs strategies that promoted itself as a neutral and nonaligned state (including joining the Non-Aligned Movement in 1971). Demonstrating its new nonalignment posture, Malaysia opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1968 and later with China in 1974, even though Malaysia was still fighting a second internal communist insurgency allegedly supported by both China and the Soviet Union.

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While successful in signaling that it was a nonaligned state in the region, Malaysia still maintains close defense ties with Great Britain and a few Commonwealth allies via the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA) – a loose consultative defense arrangement consisting of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Malaysia, which replaced the Anglo-Malaya Defense Agreement (AMDA) in 1971. As a result of FPDA commitments, some Australian and New Zealand troops are still based in Malaysia today with an Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) covering both Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore’s air space. The FPDA also allowed Malaysia, the United Kingdom, and Australia to have close defense cooperation amidst shared strategic interests. This defense relationship is extremely important to Malaysia as Australia has a formal security alliance with the United States through the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, and the United States) Treaty — which indirectly tied Malaysia’s defense to the U.S. via Australia’s commitment under the FPDA.

Similarly, the United Kingdom’s “special relationship” with the United States and their long proven record of close collaboration in defense and security issues augurs well strategically for Malaysia. The U.S. connection for both of these FPDA members is important, as both the United Kingdom and Australia today lack adequate expeditionary military power to assist Malaysia if needed.

Although the FPDA is a loose consultative arrangement without formal alliance commitments, the perceived moral responsibilities of the United Kingdom and Australia to assist in the defense of Malaysia had and will continue to deter would-be aggressors against Malaysia.

The practice of this astute statecraft indicates that Malaysia practiced dual strategies of selective alignment (instead of being purely nonaligned) and strategic ambiguity.

Selective alignment allows Malaysia to work closely with all parties for its own relative strategic advantage. This gave Malaysia the freedom to choose which powers it wants to work more closely with for its own interests. This deft practice of selective alignment is important for a small state as it allows it to be more flexible, agile, robust, and cope well with uncertainty.

Strategic ambiguity, on the other hand, enabled Malaysia to appear to be working closely with all parties without being perceived as too biased to one side, thanks to its overtly publicized nonalignment foreign policy. Malaysia’s inconspicuous security ties with Western powers kept both allies and potential adversaries guessing whose side Malaysia is really on.

Malaysia’s strategies utilized active diplomatic maneuvering to pre-empt powerful states in asserting their influence by promoting a perception that the region is neutral and there is no need for either side to establish footholds to counter each other. These strategies are different from the common alliance politics of either balancing or bandwagoning. Malaysia did not join a formal military pact to balance a powerful regional adversary or join a powerful regional adversary to hedge its security risks. Malaysia instead sought an independent foreign policy that did not entail acts of overt alliance but strategically sought to work with all parties. Malaysia continuously reshaped the strategic dynamics of the region to avoid being dragged into an ideological conflict, either directly or as a proxy.

It is strategically prudent for Malaysia to continue its Cold War foreign policy strategies by adept usage of statecraft and diplomacy in working with all parties and agilely adapting to the evolving strategic context to gain advantages for itself. Hence, the recent widely perceived conflicting and somewhat disjointed policy statements by senior Malaysian leaders appear to have yielded the intended strategic effects and make strategic sense after all.

Adam Leong Kok Wey is an Associate Professor in strategic studies and the Deputy Director of Research in the Center for Defense and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defense University of Malaysia.