Bilateral ties between Malaysia and Australia were just elevated to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” at a virtual meeting between the Prime Ministers of both countries yesterday. This marks a deepening of the relationship which had been categorised as a “strategic partnership” since November 2015. 

An increasing part of the Asia Pacific’s diplomatic nomenclature, the term “comprehensive strategic partnership” originated from China’s partnership-centric diplomacy and has been adopted by other countries in the region who wanted to frame their heightened cooperative engagements without being tied down to formal alliances. 

A comprehensive strategic partnership is seen as the reaffirmation of strong bilateral ties, with the depth and breadth of cooperation cutting across multiple spheres, often stretching beyond the traditional economic, diplomatic, security, cultural ties. More importantly, it also emphasises shared regional aspirations, and the intent to cooperate strategically on a multilateral level. 

Contextually, the only other country Malaysia has a comprehensive strategic partnership with is China, our biggest trade partner. 

This progress in Malaysia-Australia relations is reflective of one of Malaysia’s most enduring and wide-ranging diplomatic relationships. With both countries celebrating the 65th anniversary of diplomatic ties last year, it is relationship predates the independence of then-Malaya. The following are some noteworthy milestones in this six-and-half-decades relationship.  

First, Australia is a part of the Five Power Defence Agreement, the only military alliance that Malaysia is a part of, and plays a key role in assisting Malaysia with maritime domain awareness. These ties were cemented during World War 2 and the Konfrontasi, with the graves of “diggers” marking war cemeteries in the Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak. 

Second in 2019, Malaysia was Australia’s second-largest trading partner in ASEAN and its 9th largest overall. Australia was Malaysia’s 11th largest overall global trading partner the previous year. The trading relationship is anchored in two free trade agreements – the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreement and the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area. 

Third, Malaysians were among the largest participants of the original Colombo Plan, which eventually led to Australia becoming a tertiary education destination of choice. A commonly quoted estimate is that there over 300,000 Malaysian alumni of Australian education institutions scattered across both countries and beyond. Under the New Colombo Plan, Malaysia was the sixth most popular destination for Australian undergraduate students headed abroad.  

Fourth, prior to the pandemic, an estimated 385,000 Malaysians visited Australia in 2019, while 273,000 Australians reciprocated. Many Malaysians reside or have taken up citizenship in Australia and have achieved great strides there – from the winners of MasterChef to the federal cabinet.

Having said that, what does the comprehensive strategic partnership mean for the two countries moving forward? 

For starters, a comprehensive strategic partnership would mean an increase in the level and intensity of consultation and cooperation on regional and global affairs. Existing high-level meetings among ministers and senior officials would likely be regularised, and broadened with beyond trade, foreign policy and defence. 

More engagement at an apex-leadership level, between the Prime Ministers, ought to follow as a means of providing political heft. Bilateral and multilateral thematic areas of cooperation would be given greater structure, with an impetus for greater collaboration between non-government institutions to support these initiatives at a regional level. 

While some of these themes, such as free trade, non-proliferation and disarmament, maritime security, curbing violent extremism and people-smuggling have long been on the agenda, others reflect the evolving concerns of the region. 

Both countries have recognised that multilateral partnerships are essential in managing the ongoing pandemic and its long-term effects. Both are also cognisant of the importance of a peaceful, prosperous and rules-based Asia Pacific, and seek to work within existing regional mechanisms to ensure that the region can endure the worst excesses of both the US and China, who’s strategic rivalry is unlikely to abate anytime soon.    

2021 will also see Malaysia playing the role of country coordinator for Australia in ASEAN, which presents further opportunity to set the agenda at a regional level. One particular issue that was recently raised by Malaysia’s Foreign Minister at the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s retreat included the prioritising a bilateral and multilateral response to rising mental health challenges resulting from the pandemic. 

As both countries move forward in this comprehensive strategic partnership, it is essential to keep in mind that the relationship, while long and provident, could fall victim to the risks of assumed familiarity. Policymakers in Malaysia and Australia need to understand the developing nuances in domestic drivers of foreign policy, and how each country chooses to navigate their respective relationships with major powers. Thus, constant, and frank engagement, is essential. Fortunately, it is something that has been, for the most part, a tangible part of the relationship. 

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 28 January 2021.

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