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 why states may identify themselves as middle powers; one of which is the thought that middle powers are able to shape international relations in a manner that supports or preserves a state’s sovereignty. The concept, however, is ambiguous and lacks a universal definition.

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 the relative position of states within bases of power. The first is statistical and focuses on common values without subjective judgment. The second — perceived power that is involved with creating, implying or prescribing norms and standards. The third — statecraft-based definition that looks for a commonality of behaviours in influential states.

The way middle power is defined affects the parameters straddling Malaysia’s options. For instance, if they aim to prescribe or shape international norms, then participation in international forums, coupled with an understanding of good and bad international behaviour may be useful for projecting 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. 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 its use may strengthen the notion of a state’s internal and external sovereignty. It 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.

If Ping’s premises are to be believed, then a state’s behaviour in the international community as well as its participation 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. They serve as platforms to converse and cooperate on non-controversial issues. Malaysia’s projection as a middle power may be hampered if it does not play a productive role in the platforms and does not deliver tangible and helpful solutions to the international community.

The following are considerations when utilising defence and security in a foreign policy tool kit.

FIRST, 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 defence sectors;

SECOND, estimate the 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; and

THIRD, appropriate platforms for participation should be built. 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. 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 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 United Nations Group of Governmental Experts in 2014/2015 and has held consistent meetings in the Asean Regional Forum Inter-Sessional Meeting on Security and in the use of ICTs. On both platforms, Malaysia has sought to contribute and shape international discourses surrounding cybersecurity issues.

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

In Singapore, the agency in charge of national cybersecurity is the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore. The military maintains command under the Defence Cyber Organisation, whose focus and function are to address cyber threats faced by the defence sector. Malaysia has similar agencies— the National Cyber-security Agency (NACSA), Defence Ministry’s Cyber Defence Operation Centre (CDOC), and CyberSecurity Malaysia. However, harmonisation of the 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 to maximise contributions from different agencies. A cohesive foreign policy can increase Malaysia’s ability to project itself as a middle power.

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. A cohesive foreign policy that builds on engagements and norm entrepreneurship will increase Malaysia’s ability to project itself as a middle power.

This article first appeared in the New Straits Times on June 17, 2019

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