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Malaysia and the Indo-Pacific: Navigating the Ocean of Strategic Uncertainties


Within a fortnight, the Indo-Pacific region has witnessed a profusion of diplomatic footwork, much of which has implications for Malaysia. In mid-September, the European Commission and the High Representative presented the European Union’s formal Indo-Pacific strategy, a day after the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia launched a new trilateral security pact unimaginatively named AUKUS.

Xiaodonghai Bay in South China Sea. Sanya, Hainan, China. Xiaodonghai Bay in South China Sea. Sanya, Hainan, China.

AUKUS inadvertently launched a diplomatic fireball of sorts, prompting criticism not just from France, Germany, and the EU, but Malaysia and Indonesia also. During the recently-held 11th round of China-EU High-Level Dialogue, China did not pull its punches, describing AUKUS an example of a “Cold War mentality.” In apparent solidarity with France, the EU subsequently postponed the 12th round of trade negotiations with Australia.

As a non-aligned country, Malaysia has naturally been concerned about these developments. Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein is to visit China soon amidst growing tensions in the region. The EU strategy and AUKUS are just two of the latest approaches highlighting members’ differing priorities to consolidate their respective positions while addressing the uncertainties posed by the rapidly changing regional economic and security dynamics. While the EU approach is multi-faceted, normative, and inclusive, AUKUS is a members-only club specifically designed to deal with security issues.

Almost all regional stakeholders have their own articulated approaches vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific. Japan and Australia were the first to formulate Indo-Pacific policies: The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), and the Pacific Step-Up. Indonesia has its Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF). India’s Act East policy seeks to broaden its engagement with the “East,” while the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR), and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) aim to strengthen its Indo-Pacific presence.

While South Korea has its New Southern Policy, Taiwan under Tsai Ing-wen has formulated a New Southbound policy. ASEAN has also attempted to jump on the bandwagon through its ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Each of these strategies brings with it a range of conceptions of the ideal configuration of regional order, reflecting both the priorities and preferred approaches of the nations that have formulated them. What is clear, though, is that China is the common denominator of the strategic planners of these various state actors.

However, Malaysia still hasn’t shown its cards regarding the current Indo-Pacific dynamics and is yet to officially embrace the Indo-Pacific construct. Both Malaysia’s current foreign and defense policies – the 2019 Foreign Policy Framework of the New Malaysia and the first-ever Defense White Paper launched the same year – do not explicitly mention the Indo-Pacific. The White Paper only references it to highlight some of Malaysia’s security concerns, particularly concerning the emerging great power rivalry.

In terms of guiding principles and strategies, Malaysia’s foreign and security policies have to a large extent remained consistent over the years. Its various strategies include an emphasis on ASEAN as the cornerstone of Malaysia’s foreign policy; an equal emphasis on strengthening bilateral and multilateral relations; a commitment to advancing global peace, security, and prosperity through multilateralism (i.e., the United Nations), plurilateralism (the Non-Aligned Movement, the Commonwealth, the G77), and regionalism (FEALAC, IORA, ASEM, and APEC); and a commitment to fostering cooperation between Islamic nations through the Organization of Islamic Countries.

Last Updated: 07/10/2021