Last week, Malaysia’s Prime Minister embarked on a visit to Vietnam. While the agenda of the trip was wide-ranging, it also put the focus on ongoing efforts by the two Southeast Asian states to explore opportunities to broaden and deepen their bilateral defense cooperation, following the shock election of a new government in Malaysia that occurred last May.
As I have observed previously in these pages, Vietnam and Malaysia share a relationship – which started in 1973 and was officially elevated to a strategic partnership back in 2015 – that extends into the defense realm. Both sides inked a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on bilateral defense cooperation back in 2008, and the scope of ties has included not only issues such as the South China Sea – with both countries being claimants – but also others such as tackling transnational crimes, managing illegal fishing, and sharing experiences on peacekeeping. There have been attempts to advance ties still further over the past few years, even though in some areas, the pace has been slower than the rhetoric has suggested.
Last week, the defense aspect of the relationship was in the headlines with the visit of Mahathir to Vietnam. Mahathir paid an official visit to Vietnam which lasted from August 26 to 28 as part of a wider regional tour, and he was accompanied by a high-level delegation that included officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the foreign ministry, and the ministry of international trade and industry.
The visit itself included a series of interactions, including a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace and meetings between Mahathir and Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and a call on Nguyen Phu Trong, who currently serves as both general secretary of the Communist Party as well as president of Vietnam. And the joint statement addressed a range of issues, including raising total trade to reach at least $15 billion by 2020, increasing the frequency of Vietnam-Malaysia direct flights, and underscoring the importance of multilateralism both regionally and internationally through bodies such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
But visit also highlighted the defense aspect of cooperation between the two countries. For instance, in terms of new developments, the two premiers witnessed the signing of a letter of intent on the signing of the MOU on Maritime Law Enforcement and Search and Rescue Cooperation, in the wake of ongoing challenges they have faced in the maritime security domain on encroachments and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
Beyond that, the joint statement also made reference to other aspects of Vietnam-Malaysia security cooperation that both sides are looking to advance to structure this aspect of collaboration. For example, both sides committed to the prompt establishment of the High-Level Committee (HLC) on Defense Cooperation and agreed to hold the first meeting of the HLC on Defense Cooperation that will be hosted by Vietnam in 2019, something which has been talked about since a letter of intent on the subject back in 2015. They also agreed to hold the first meeting of the Joint Working Group (JWG) on Transnational Crimes under the framework of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperation in Preventing and Combating Transnational Crimes signed back in 2015.
To be sure, these steps do not change the fact that both sides continue to have to manage challenges within the security aspect of ties. For instance, in terms of issues between them, the joint statement explicitly noted that both sides “shared concerns” over issues of encroachment of vessels and IUU fishing. And with respect to shared challenges, the South China Sea was clearly of note, with both sides expressing “serious concerns” about the situation there. Nonetheless, the fact that we are seeing both sides seek to advance their security ties is yet another sign of Southeast Asian states advancing defense ties among themselves in a bilateral fashion and of intra-Asian security networking in the region more generally.