Greater synergies could bring about strategic, defence advantages to Malaysia, other Asean member states
By Rahul Mishra
INDIA-MALAYSIA ties are embedded deeply in history. Waves of engagement between the two countries and their people for more than two millennia bear testimony to that fact. From the Chola and Pallava kingdoms to the British Indian empire, and Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, Malaya had always played a critical role in making India’s eastward engagement a success.
On the strategic and defence fronts, too, the relationship has been multi-faceted. The British use of Indian troops to defend the Malay Peninsula in World War II only strengthened a sense of mutual interdependence between the two countries and their political leadership. Strong personal equations between the first prime ministers of India and Malaysia – Jawaharlal Nehru and Tunku Abdul Rahman consolidated the ties.
During the Cold War years, Malaysia and India remained close partners with the latter leaning towards a fellow non-aligned country – Malaysia – rather than Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. The launch of its Look East (1992) and Act East (2014) policies in the post-Cold War era widened and deepened bilateral and multilateral engagements between the two countries. The changing strategic dynamics in the region, manifested in the form of the rapidly evolving Indo-Pacific order, opened new vistas of cooperation between New Delhi and Putrajaya. India and Malaysia must carefully align their shared concerns and interests and keep promises made over the years.
The term “Indo-Pacific” with its notion of being a “confluence of two seas” is not new. Indo-Pacific was launched as a policy pronouncement by the late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 in a speech in the Indian parliament. The idea, along with Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), has gained remarkable international attention, especially over the past five years.
The growing China-US strategic rivalry, technological competition and attempts to create exclusive spheres of economic influence have posed both challenges and opportunities for the region. With other major stakeholders, such as Japan, India, European Union, Australia, the United Kingdom, and even Russia, vying for greater influence, it is clear that the global strategic and diplomatic attention is shifting towards the Indo-Pacific region.
Sensing that while the evolution and strengthening of the Indo-Pacific order might throw open new opportunities, a stiffer strategic race might also marginalise Asean member countries. While hedging has been a useful tool in Asean’s diplomatic toolkit, yielding positive gains for some, its utility is fast depleting. “Hedging is a luxury middle powers cannot afford for long, especially when the stakes are high, superpowers are pushy, and the rivalry is intensifying.”
Notwithstanding its strategic ambiguity and measured policy preferences, especially vis-à-vis great power competition, the Asean outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) should be seen as a confident move to engage the Indo-Pacific architecture and order at its own terms.
While Malaysia has not officially pronounced its Indo-Pacific strategy, it is one of the contributing members, which designed the AOIP. A closer look at its foreign policy priorities and practices shows that even though Malaysia has yet to launch its policy, at a broader level, the strategic design is very much in place.
In addition to being one of the leading proponents of the construct, India is a major beneficiary of the emerging Indo-Pacific order as it is the first time in several decades that India was included in a regional architecture. Whether it is Asia-Pacific manifested as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) or the comprehensive and progressive agreement for Trans-Pacific partnership (CPTPP), India had been an outcast.
The Indo-Pacific construct changes that and brings India back to the regional dynamics and celebrates its rise, although not all are as forthcoming as Japan, the United States, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia were when it came to engagement.
Asean at centre
For the past several years, the naysayers have criticised Indo-Pacific for lacking a clearly defined geographical boundary. That issue has now been resolved largely due to Asean’s efforts to keep Indo-Pacific premised on the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions.
Developing suitable institutional frameworks is another critically important issue. Indo-Pacific powers, such as India and the United States, are coming up with their own initiatives to provide an institutional reality to the construct. Sensing the urgency of providing the Indo-Pacific construct some enabling institutional realities, India has come up with its own initiatives. The two major contributions include the Indo-Pacific oceans’ initiative (IPOI) and security and growth for all in the region (SAGAR).
The Americans’ Indo-Pacific economic framework (IPEF) and India’s IPOI seek to give the Indo-Pacific architecture an institutional framework. As New Delhi’s newest move to portray India as a responsible partner and a “rule-maker” rather than a “rule-taker”, IPOI has been received well by countries, such as Australia, France, Japan, the United Kingdom and Vietnam, which have joined the IPOI.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched IPOI during the East Asia Summit on 4 November 2019 in Thailand. Keeping Asean at the centre, IPOI aims to act as a bridge between Asean and its dialogue partners in the Indo-Pacific region. It also aims to generate “greater coordination among the already existent institutional structures”. Asean’s centrality and its outlook on the Indo-Pacific are complementary to IPOI.
IPOI is not driven by any balance of power considerations. As Modi himself stated, IPOI is an “open-for-all initiative”. Another interesting feature of IPOI is that it is not tied around a binding or non-binding treaty and is based on seven pillars of cooperation – maritime security; maritime ecology; maritime resources; capacity building and resource sharing; disaster-risk reduction and management; and science, technology and academic cooperation.
IPOI’s strength lies in the fact that like the IPEF, it aims to be a “norm setter” trying to differentiate between what is good for the region and what might pose risks to regional countries. The fragility of the existing liberal international order and the delicate nature of emerging Indo-Pacific dynamics compel IPOI and its supporters to make this initiative an institutional reality by staying committed to the “whole of Indo-Pacific region approach” but without toning down its commitment to QUAD and other such mini-lateral mechanisms.
Non-traditional security is an important reason for Malaysia and other Asean members to cooperate with all their dialogue partners. Both nations face non-traditional security challenges on multiple fronts, including maritime piracy, terrorism and cyber attacks. It is a matter of vital interest to secure the Malacca Strait and secure the sea lanes of communication from non-traditional security threats. Cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is also an important focus area.
The changing strategic dynamics of the region, manifested in the form of the Indo-Pacific construct, opens up a range of unexplored possibilities of cooperation between New Delhi and Putrajaya. As India and Malaysia celebrated 65 years of their diplomatic relations in 2022 – also termed as the “Asean-India year of friendship” – there is a deep realisation that this relationship has potential to scale new heights. This, however, is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. India, Malaysia and other Asean members must align their mutually shared concerns and interests and work towards keeping the promises made over the decades.
Dr Rahul Mishra is director of the Centre for Asean Regionalism, Universiti Malaya (CARUM)