Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will undertake a two-day official visit to the Philippines starting tomorrow, his fifth overseas trip since his appointment in November.
According to the state media service Bernama, which cited a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Malaysian leader will meet Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and is expected to discuss bilateral cooperation in the areas of security, the halal food industry, and the digital economy.
“The visit reflects the importance of good ties between Malaysia and the Philippines as close neighbors and partners in ASEAN,” said the statement. “It will provide both sides an excellent opportunity to advance the partnership for progress, guided by shared interest, increased political and economic cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges.”
A statement from Marcos’ office, which noted that Anwar’s visit would be the first of a foreign head of government to the Philippines since Marcos took office last July, added that the two leaders “are also expected to exchange views on regional and international issues.”
Anwar’s trip completes a rota of state visits to Malaysia’s closest neighbors, following trips to Indonesia (January), Brunei (January), Singapore (January), and Thailand (February). He will reportedly be accompanied by a number of senior officials, including Foreign Affairs Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir, Home Affairs Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, and Entrepreneur and Cooperatives Development Minister Ewon Benedick. Anwar will also hold an engagement session with the Malaysian diaspora in the Philippines.
In general Malaysia and the Philippines enjoy friendly relations, as reflected in the warm words that Anwar and Marcos exchanged after Anwar’s appointment in November.
On the security front, the two countries share a host of traditional and nontraditional challenges, including terrorism, piracy, and illegal fishing, and since 2017 have taken part in trilateral security patrols in the Sulu Sea, along with Indonesia. The two countries obviously share concerns about China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea, which include large swathes of their respective Exclusive Economic Zones.
Economically, the two nations’ economies enjoy a degree of complementarity, with the Philippines exporting mostly raw materials to Malaysia, and importing in return a range of manufactured goods including electronic products, mechanical equipment, appliances, processed food, and chemicals, as well as the ubiquitous palm oil and its various derivatives.
The Philippines last year was Malaysia’s 15th largest trading partner globally and the fifth largest within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), while Malaysia was the Philippines’ 11th largest trading partner overall and the third largest within ASEAN.
These relatively moderate levels of trade point to the fact that the southern Philippines and eastern Malaysia, the areas of each nation in closest proximity, are among the most economically marginal parts of each nation, far from the major economic and urban centers, and have relatively few transport links between them.
Indeed, the Malaysia-Philippines border between the two has often been a point of friction. Malaysia is one of the top five countries with the largest population of overseas Filipinos, though many – at least 400,000, according to one 2018 estimate – are undocumented, particularly in eastern Malaysia.
The two nations also have an unresolved territorial dispute over the Malaysian state of Sabah, over which the countries nearly went to war in the early 1960s. Although officials on both sides frequently assert, and state their intention to defend, their nations’ clashing claims over Sabah, the issue has been mostly dormant since the deadly incursion into Sabah’s Lahad Datu district by militants from the southern Philippines in 2013.
That said, there are enough areas of overlapping interests in the relationship that both sides will be incentivized to ensure that the dispute does not affect the bilateral relationship, as much as it might occasionally stir up political emotions at the national level. Anwar’s visit this week offers a good opportunity to take further steps to develop and consolidate the relationship between the two neighbors.