Amid great power transition, Asean should leverage on New Delhi’s security pact with Putrajaya

By Nur Shahadah Jamil

THE great power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific region in the post-cold war era is driven by China’s phenomenal economic growth – which underpins its rising military capability and United States’ desire to “push back” to retain its geopolitical pre-eminence.

While Malaysia – like other Southeast Asian countries – does have concerns over regional polarisation and marginalisation of Asean’s role as the primary regional convener, India is also walking the strategic tightrope between its US ally and Chinese economic partner. It would, therefore, be interesting to see how Malaysia and India can cooperate and operationalise their respective defence and maritime security strategies amid the current great power contention.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it clear that one of India’s foreign policy priorities is to participate in issues concerning the Indian Ocean region (IOR). His vision is reflected through the SAGAR initiative (also known as security and growth for all in the region) introduced in 2015.

SAGAR represents a nexus of maritime cooperation and economic development between regional countries. There are five elements to SAGAR: safeguard India’s mainland and islands and defend New Delhi’s interests; deepen economic and security cooperation with regional states; deepen mutual understanding and strengthen collective ability in dealing with maritime challenges; promote sustainable development; and to engage other nations through dialogues, capacity building and economic partnerships.

SAGAR is also an integral part of India’s Act East Policy and aims to deepen strategic and economic engagement with Southeast Asian countries to counter an increasingly powerful China. This is where Malaysia comes into play. Troubled by China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and various maritime security threats in the Strait of Malacca, Malaysia appears to be quite receptive to a mini-lateral security framework to ensure the security and stability in its maritime sphere.

For instance, in March 2022, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines reiterated the need to expand trilateral patrols in the Sulu Sea to tackle transnational organised crime and terrorist threats. This is one of the potential areas in which India can participate. However, New Delhi must be fully aware of Southeast Asian sensitivity towards sovereignty. Therefore, focus should be set on exploring collaborations in non-traditional security threats that will lead to the establishment of a response mechanism with relevant stakeholders.

Gateway to Asean engagement

Malaysia is not only critical to India’s maritime connectivity strategies but also plays a role as a gateway to engaging with Asean. As one of its founding members, Malaysia has been supportive of India’s engagement with the regional entity. From a sectorial dialogue partner in 1992 to a full member in 2005, India was able to utilise Asean-led mechanisms, for example, defence ministers’ meeting (ADMM) and Asean regional forum (ARF) to discuss regional political and security issues, while promoting cooperation with member states on different fronts.

Bilaterally, the Malaysia-India comprehensive economic cooperation agreement (MICECA) was signed in February 2011 and came into force in July the same year. The agreement – which contains 16 chapters and 15 annexes, value-adds to the benefits shared from Asean-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIG) and will further facilitate and enhance two-way trade, services, investment and economic relations between New Delhi and Putrajaya.

Multilaterally, during the second Asean-India Summit in 2003, leaders from both sides signed a framework agreement on comprehensive economic cooperation, which laid the basis for further agreements, including trade in goods, trade in services and investment, which formed the Asean-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA).

Meanwhile, Malaysia-India defence relations have also grown steadily since 1993 through the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU). Various defence activities were carried out under the Malaysia-India defence cooperation meeting (MIDCOM) framework, such as the annual joint military exercises known as Harimau Shakti. In fact, the Indian Navy Ship Satpura and the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) with the participation of two ships – KD Badik and KD Perak have undertaken the Samudra Laskhmana exercise in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah from 25-28 May 2022.

Several months later in August, the two countries held their first ever bilateral air exercise known as Udara Shakti in Kuantan Airbase aimed at strengthening the professional relationship between the Indian Air Force and Royal Malaysian Air Force through field training exercises and subject matter expert exchange. In addition, as the Malaysian Air Force recently scouted for 18 light fighter jets, New Delhi offered an attractive package for its Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) that would include maintenance for Malaysia’s Russian SU-30 jets. Such cooperation, however, should be converted from a purely buyer-seller relationship to a more comprehensive long-term partnership covering the transfer of technology and joint research and development.

China factor

At the same time, multiple challenges continue to exist in the partnership. Among these is the China factor. Putting aside Southeast Asian countries’ reservations to work closely with China in the security domain, Beijing’s increasing economic might and Asean’s growing development needs are undeniable facts.

China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 13 consecutive years and largest foreign direct investment source in the manufacturing sector for the last five years. The country is also receptive towards China’s belt and road initiative (BRI) on infrastructure projects. A similar trend can also be observed in other Southeast Asian countries. As a result, India will need to seek alternative paths and identify other niche areas to engage Southeast Asia.

Furthermore, with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) constant and rapid modernisation, it would be difficult for India to secure its position as the first responder to search and rescue or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations. Thus, SAGAR could easily be eclipsed by China. One good example would be the Malacca Straits patrol (MSP). Commenced in 2004, the MSP is a quadrilateral arrangement between Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand (joined in 2008) for intelligence exchange, coordinated air (eye-in-the-sky) and sea patrol through the vital strait.

India has been expressing its interest in joining the arrangement, but its request has been turned down mainly because of the issue of sovereignty and reservations from the littoral states that such a move might end up antagonising China. In addition, although India has a lot to offer, it has limited capability to execute its plans. The fact that there is no official document that lays down the fundamental elements or approaches of SAGAR also leads to the perception that the initiative lacks a whole-of-government approach.

Nevertheless, enhanced cooperation between Malaysia and India is mutually beneficial. Working closely with an Asean member state as like-minded partners will not only enable New Delhi to create a diplomatic space to hedge against the Sino-US rivalry, but also offers it an avenue to explore and expand its statecraft beyond its traditional security, economic and diplomatic partnerships. On the other hand, the partnership would also enable Malaysia and Asean to benefit from greater connectivity and collaboration as laid out in SAGAR, where participation and support from India will help strengthen Asean centrality and enhance its leverage in dealing with other powers.

Dr Nur Shahadah Jamil is senior lecturer at the Institute of China Studies, Universiti Malaya

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