As geopolitical tensions rise alongside US-China rivalry, Malaysia must reassert its importance in region. 

THE United States has long been criticised for neglecting Southeast Asia but this seems to be changing under the Biden administration. As the US-China rivalry deepens, American and Chinese diplomacy is zeroed in on the region.  

In recent months, Southeast Asia’s strategic importance has been elevated. Despite the pandemic, both Beijing and Washington have stepped up diplomatic efforts in the region. Keen to win the support of Asean states, Beijing frequently engaged bilaterally and multilaterally with its Southeast Asian counterparts. Likewise, the Biden administration’s policy shift towards the Indo-Pacific led to multiple high-level visits across the region. 

The diplomatic race is infusing Southeast Asia with a vibrant atmosphere of competition. Lately, there is a flurry of high-level officials from China and the US shuffling in and out of the region with the aim of reassuring Asean states of their commitment.  

Singapore and Vietnam have emerged as strategic favourites, with visits from the US defence secretary and vice-president to strengthen ties, followed by China’s foreign minister to reassert its influence. As the superpowers vie for regional support, Asean states are presented with more opportunities to hedge against China’s growing dominance here.  

One notable “exclusion” amid the high-level visits is Malaysia. Since June, the US has visited six of the 10 Asean countries. Malaysia represents one of the four that the Biden administration has yet to engage with in-person. At best, our exchanges have been over the phone or virtual, such as through the various Asean foreign ministers’ meetings.  

Similarly, despite close relations with Beijing, high-level diplomatic engagement is losing momentum. The last meeting took place in April between former foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. Hishammuddin had to skip the Asean-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in June because he was under quarantine. Since then, no high-level bilateral exchange has taken place.  

Why is Malaysia taking a back seat while geopolitical engagements are ramping up? One possible reason was the political instability during the final months of Muhyiddin Yassin’s government. This would not be unusual, considering the pause in China-Vietnam high-level bilateral exchanges while the former was actively pursuing Covid diplomacy. This was primarily due to the organisation of the 13th National Congress in Hanoi. After months of absence, Beijing is now eager to win Hanoi’s approval as the US-China rivalry intensifies.  

Should the political situation stabilise under Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the prime minister could move to reassert Malaysia’s importance as a strategic partner. Malaysia can do so in three ways.  

First, the new government needs to reaffirm Malaysia’s role in the international community. Our foreign policy should be one that is non-aligned, autonomous, Asean-centred and empowers regional voices. In exhibiting a clear and firm stance on issues, such as the recent announcement of the trilateral Aukus pact, Malaysia can navigate international affairs in a manner that best serve our national interests.  

Second, Malaysia should act more proactively, especially in multilateral platforms, such as Asean. For example, as the region recovers from Covid-19, Malaysia should take the lead on establishing a region-wide vaccine recognition campaign tofacilitate border reopening. Playing an active role in supporting regional prosperity will highlight Malaysia’s leadership.  

Third, Malaysia needs to deepen engagement with more partners. While the momentum of relations with China needs to be reinvigorated, Malaysia should not be perceived to be leaning towards Beijing. More attention needs to be paid to Western partners, such as the US and UK. The UK is seeking greater engagement in Asia-Pacific and was recently granted dialogue partner status with Asean. Malaysia can better pursue a hedging strategy by exploring more opportunities with the UK and other partners.  

It is tricky navigating geopolitical uncertainties, but this should not undermine Malaysia’s ability to act. Instead, it offers an opportunity to demonstrate our resolve to upholding regional peace and stability and more importantly, our leadership. Malaysia must remain relevant and resilient in its foreign policy goals. This will determine our strategic importance in the region.  

This article also appeared in New Straits Times on 13 October 2021.

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