Last week, Malaysia’s defense minister Mohamad Sabu paid a visit to Indonesia. Though the engagement was just one of several defense-related interactions between the neighboring Southeast Asian states, it nonetheless spotlighted continuing efforts at play to manage the security aspect of their relations amid wider domestic and regional developments.
Despite some remaining challenges on the defense side that they continue to manage, including illegal fishing and outstanding disputes, Malaysia and Indonesia, the two main Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia, do maintain an overall security relationship, with components including exchanges, visits, and some components of education and training collaboration as well as exercises.
The development of defense ties has continued on into 2019 amid changes in wider regional dynamics as well as domestic politics, whether it be heightened collaboration between the two countries and the Philippines with respect to trilateral cooperation in the Sulu Sea or the reelection of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo earlier this year which has implications for Jakarta’s approach to foreign and security policy as well. For instance, just in November, Indonesia’s new Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who had been installed as a member of Jokowi’s new cabinet a month earlier, had paid his introductory visit to Malaysia in his new position which constituted his first overseas visit.
Last week, this aspect of the bilateral relationship was in the headlines again with the visit of Mohamad Sabu to Indonesia. The trip consisted of a series of interactions, including a meeting with Subianto as well as a speaking engagement in Jakarta on Malaysia-Indonesia relations.
Per a statement from Malaysia’s defense ministry (MINDEF), the meeting between the two defense ministers consisted of a wide-ranging and open discussion, including commitments to further strengthen defense cooperation in areas such as defense industry. While no further specifics were publicly disclosed on this, this is in line with what was discussed at the last meeting between the ministers in November 2019, where there was a desire expressed to increase collaboration in areas such as exchange of officers and students and defense industry.
Unsurprisingly, the two countries also discussed the recent incident earlier this month where several Indonesian fishermen had been kidnapped – which was just the latest manifestation of lingering security challenges in the maritime space in spite of increased trilateral cooperation in the Sulu Sea and had raised concerns about Indonesian discontent on the current state of affairs. Predictably, the official MINDEF statement was less blunt on the current state of affairs, noting only that the ministers had touched on the recent developments and expressed confidence on the implementation of trilateral cooperation. More specifics may be made available at the next meeting on this front, which is expected on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Retreat next month.
To be sure, as with previous meetings of this ilk, much will depend on how both countries can actually operationalize what they have been discussing. As we see interactions at various levels including between the two ministers – with the next bilateral focused meeting potentially in April with Mohamad’s invitation to Subianto to attend a series of security meetings to be held in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur – it will be important to assess how they are attempting to turn aspirations into realities on the defense front amid the wider bilateral relationship.