The concept of middle power is one fraught with relativism, where the power projected is in relation to another state or, in a multilateral setting, to other states. There are reasons states may identify themselves as middle powers, among which is the thought that middle powers are able to shape international relations in a manner that supports or preserves a state’s sovereignty. However, the concept of middle power is ambiguous, and lacks a universal definition or an international body that bestows such a title.

The concept of power and influence was once only associated with calculable parameters such as military might, economic influence, level of development and population size. Jonathan Ping argued in his thesis, Middle Power Statecraft: Indonesia and Malaysia, of three methods to identify relative position of states within bases of power. The first is statistical and focuses on common values without subjective judgment. The second is perceived power that is involved with creating, implying or prescribing norms and standards. The third is a statecraft-based definition that looks for a commonality of behaviours in somewhat influential states.

The way middle power is defined affects the parameters straddling Malaysia’s options. For instance, if these aim to prescribe or shape international norms, then participation in international fora, coupled with an understanding of good and bad international behaviour may be useful for projecting the image of Malaysia as a middle power. Additionally, the parameters may affect the range needed for the country to reach prominence. Malaysia may have greater perceived power in certain religious matters due to the relevant institutions that exist and function well in international contexts.

There are certain tools for a state to project such means of power. Gordon Craig and Alexander George in Force and Statecraft: Diplomatic Problems of Our Time mention that in the modern age, a state’s means of projecting influence are in a state’s ability to negotiate. Some of the means are in agenda setting, acquiring and exchanging of information, persuading and bargaining, searching for creative solutions, enforcing and verifying agreements as well as multilateral negotiating.

Defence diplomacy falls into the gambit of negotiations, particularly since the usage of defence diplomacy can strengthen the notion of a state’s internal and external sovereignty. Defence diplomacy can contribute towards foreign relations, particularly as visits, exchanges and exercises between defence sectors can contribute to building trust, shaping policies, increasing force capabilities and strengthening bilateral relationships. An example is China’s usage of military diplomacy, which appears aimed at projecting China’s image positively among regional armed forces.

If Ping’s premises are taken as true, then a state’s behaviour in the international community as well as a state’s participation to shape norms would be indications of states being identified as middle powers. In defence diplomacy, the ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM-Plus are often cited as Malaysia’s successful participation in regional defence diplomacy. The arrangements serve as platforms to converse and cooperate on non-controversial issues. However, in such security architectures, the projection of a state as a middle power can be affected by the effectiveness of the platform as well as the state’s participation in such mechanisms. Therefore, Malaysia’s projection as a middle power may be hampered if Malaysia does not play a productive role in the architectures or if the platforms do not deliver tangible and helpful solutions to the international community.

Thus, the following are a few considerations when utilising defence and security in a foreign policy tool kit.

First, we should consider the areas of cooperation and participation in the international arena. Participation, contribution and active development should be driven by the political arm and sharpened by the capability of the defence sectors.

Second, we should estimate priorities and ensure responsibilities are accorded to relevant agencies. The development of power perception is only effective if the state focuses resources and institutions in a common direction. With harmonised efforts, Malaysia can stand on a single platform for such issues.

Third, we should find or build appropriate platforms for participation. Considering that being a middle power is an exercise in comparison, increasing participation in platforms can be helpful.

Cybersecurity is a possible area for defence engagement in Malaysia’s foreign policy agenda being in many ways dependent on cooperation and exchanges between states. Perpetrators utilise interlinked infrastructure to conduct attacks, and a state can be an intermediary destination before an attack heads to its intended destination. Therefore, protection of infrastructure and society is dependent on the international community’s technological capacity, information exchanges and shared values.

Malaysia is well-placed to contribute to and to shape discussions. Institutions such as Cybersecurity Malaysia, the National Cyber Coordination and Command Centre and the National Cyber Security Agency as well as laws and policies protecting critical infrastructure have been in different stages of development since the 1990s. Malaysia has also served in the UN Group of Governmental Experts in 2014/2015 and hold consistent meetings in ASEAN Regional Forum Inter-Sessional Meeting on Security and in the Use of ICTs. On both platforms, Malaysia have sought to contribute and shape international discourses surrounding cybersecurity issues.

Where the defence sector can play a role to advance Malaysia’s international cybersecurity agenda is in contributions to national discourses that develop Malaysia’s position on issues related to cyberspace. In particular, inputs to construct the definition of sovereignty in cyber can be helpful in outreach intended to shape international rules and regulations. Secondly, this also helps in forming ties and exchanges that raise national capacity.

An area such as cybersecurity may be challenging for military diplomacy. Cybersecurity issues exist in the civil-military domain. On the one hand, threats from cyberspace are not kinetic, thus traditional paradigms of responses may not apply. Attacks in cyberspace are below the threshold of force, and therefore debates in international law are still articulating the premises of sovereignty and countermeasures.

On the other hand, the responsibility of agencies and institutions for non-traditional issues can differ from state to state, where cybersecurity in some states may favour homeland forces and others are parked in the military. In Singapore, the agency in charge of national cybersecurity is the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore. The military maintains their own command under the Defence Cyber Organisation, whose focus and function are to address cyber threats faced by the defence sector. Malaysia has a similar construction with the National Cybersecurity Agency (NACSA). MinDef has the Cyber Defence Operation Center (CDOC), a body tasked with the security of the Malaysian military’s cyber sphere while Cybersecurity Malaysia is the statutory body responsible for monitoring the national cyber domain. The silos do allow for cross-pollination of knowledge whilst not sacrificing the ability of agencies to deepen knowledge. However, harmonisation of agencies is needed to ensure that information is shared. A weak internal approach may impact external engagements.

The third contribution is the direction needed by the defence sectors from a cybersecurity foreign policy agenda to maximise contributions from different agencies. A cohesive foreign policy direction can increase Malaysia’s ability to project itself as a middle power. Here, defence diplomacy can play a role either in setting the agenda in international platforms, acquiring and exchanging information with other states or attempting multilateral negotiation.

Foreign policy meeting defence diplomacy is perhaps best articulated by the European Union’s unified stance on a cyber foreign policy. The European Union’s 2013 Cyber Security Strategy galvanised efforts and resources to promote EU-core values which are inclusive of fundamental rights, privacy and multistakeholder mechanisms. The EU Cyber Direct is EU’s diplomatic effort in building international law in cyberspace, norms of responsible state behaviour and Confidence Building Measures. On this platform, the EU engages with governments and non-governmental actors, inclusive of the defence sectors.

Malaysia thus far has some seeds sown for perceived power in cybersecurity. With a high internet penetration rate and high ranking in the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Global Cybersecurity Index, the country can become a middle power in cybersecurity. Consistent development, review of policies, internal harmonisation and a unified external outreach will propel Malaysia’s approach further. A cohesive foreign policy direction that builds on engagements and norm entrepreneurship will increase Malaysia’s ability to project itself as a middle power.

Disclaimer: Contribution for MiDAS’s Defence White Paper Commentary collection

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