Malaysia as an aspiring middle power in midst of great power rivalry

Malaysian elections rarely feature foreign policy ideas and debates. However, who Malaysians choose to run the nation next and how Malaysia positions itself internationally will have huge consequences on the increasingly tense region. For a secure and peaceful Southeast Asia, Malaysia needs to have a robust and independent foreign policy and should see itself as an aspiring middle power in the context of great power rivalry.

Let us begin by scanning the global environment that we operate in. Since the end of the Second World War, the world has experienced two orders, namely, the Cold War period that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; and post-Cold War, a relatively peaceful period that was already fraying by the time Covid-19 arrived in 2020, and officially ended when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24 this year.

The world is facing several crises at once:

(i) after nearly three years, the Covid-19 pandemic has not left us entirely while the emergence of other pandemics can never be ruled out;

(ii) the climate crisis is only going to exacerbate while collective actions of the world’s governments are difficult to come by;

(iii) with supply chain disruptions, inflation and massive interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, the global economy faces the most serious stress since the 1970s; and

(iv) great power rivalries, geopolitical challenges and wars that involve at least one of the superpowers are no longer far-fetched but probable.

There is no way these crises can go away just like that. Instead, nations have to organise themselves at the national, regional and global levels to deal with pandemics, climate crises, the economy and geopolitics very differently from the past.

In the decades to come, the US would still remain the strongest nation on earth, yet the post-Cold War era, which saw the US being the singular dominant power, had long been a thing of the past.

The US will have to accommodate other superpowers, namely China and Russia, as well as a coterie of “middle powers” such as the European states, India, Turkey, Iran, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Indonesia and Australia.

In short, the next world order is one that will be decidedly multipolar and far more fluid, complex and perhaps more transactional than what the world had experienced since the Second World War. For instance, while India is a member of the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) — a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the US — and aligns itself with the US when it comes to reacting to China, it unmistakably diverges from the US’ approach towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In fact, much as China and Russia professed a “no limits” friendship, China did not endorse nor support Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

The danger we face in the region we live in is that China has accumulated plenty of grievances against the US, which is not new, but China now also possesses the military and economic capabilities and capacities to match that of the US in East Asia and Southeast Asia in the foreseeable future.

Some thinkers in Beijing are of the view that the US is on a permanent decline and that China would replace the US as the hegemon in the not-too-distant future. Some of them even view that wars are unavoidable when transiting from a US-led region and US-led world to one where China becomes dominant.

In response, some thinkers in Washington, DC, are of the view that the US must preserve its pre-eminence and must not be seen sharing powers with others, namely China, as such acts would be deemed as a sign of weakness. Likewise, some in Washington think that wars are unavoidable. 

When Beijing and Washington are respectively dominated by increasingly hardened views, the so-called Thucydides trap may eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If a war breaks out in East Asia or in the South China Sea, the region and the world will be a very dark place as any such wars could possibly lead to the Third World War.

Therefore, we must reject this potentially disastrous zero-sum view.

Instead, in a grossly simplified manner, the world can be conceived as having three broad groups of nations: namely, the US and its closest allies constituting the first one-third; the second one-third are those that are by default anti-US; and the final one-third nations are not aligned tightly to the first or second groups. 

While in East Asia the lines are more starkly drawn between those who are for and against the US, Southeast Asian states are generally, to use Professor Kuik Cheng-Chwee’s word, “hedgers”.

Southeast Asian states have a historic mission to ensure that the world’s superpowers do not go to the brink on our doorstep. We will have to tell the US that preserving its pre-eminent position in the region and the world does not mean that there should be no power sharing with China and other middle powers. On the other hand, we will have to tell China that the middle powers and all other small nations prefer not to replace one hegemonic power with another.

We do not endorse US hegemony nor Chinese hegemony. The new multipower world order that this generation is tasked to shape should be one that has no singular dominant power, be it the US or China.

It is in this context that Malaysia must rise to the occasion to be an active actor shaping its destinies in this chaotic phase of flux when the previous world order is obviously fraying, yet the new order has yet to emerge.

It is not new that Malaysia understood its agency in the region and the world. Historically, Malaysia has punched above its weight globally in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, in the formation and expansion of Asean, in becoming the voice of the Global South, a shining example of progress for the Muslim world, and so on. As the late Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj solemnly said in his Merdeka speech, Malaysia aspires to be “a beacon of light in a disturbed and distracted world”.

It is just that over the past decade or so, Malaysia has become increasingly insular, inward-looking, and lacking in ambition and purpose in its conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy.

Malaysia should see itself as an aspiring middle power. There are multiple definitions of what constitutes a middle power and I do not intend to dwell on them. Suffice to say that Malaysia should aspire to be a middle power as envisaged by the Defence White Paper presented by former defence minister Mohamad Sabu to Parliament on Dec 2, 2019, and accepted in bipartisan fashion by the house.

The key is to be strategic and proactive in Malaysia’s conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy. We must realise that Malaysia’s economic fate and our people’s well-being require a robust yet balanced foreign policy. For instance, Malaysia and the region benefit to a certain extent from the departures of US, European and even Chinese firms from China due to the increasingly hostile US-China relationship. These firms formed the bulk of new investments in Southeast Asian states in the past three years.

But if a war breaks out in our region, all bets are off. 

Therefore, the singular most important objective of Malaysian foreign policy and diplomacy in the years and decades to come is to maintain peace and to avoid wars in East Asia and Southeast Asia. To do so, it will require Malaysia to be an active middle power alongside other regional neighbours to create and expand the space in the middle or the buffer between the extremes or the hardline impulses among the thinkers and policymakers in Beijing and Washington alike.

To actively engage the world, Malaysia needs to invest a lot more in the foreign ministry, as well as build up a whole-of-government capability to conduct diplomacy effectively, such as through defence diplomacy or even climate diplomacy.

Knowledge, expertise and talents have to form a major part of this multi-year national effort. Our universities, foreign policy think tanks and scholars must be given adequate resources and, more importantly, access to the policymakers when it comes to providing input for better policy outcomes.

It is only with a robust and independent foreign policy and readiness to build itself to be a middle power that Malaysia can ensure the peace and security in the region for the years and decades to come.

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