Indo-Pacific initiative, culture, food security present opportunities to reset ties

AS we mark Malaysia-India @ 65, it is important to analyse and understand the status quo, impediments and trajectory of this “time-tested” relationship. Like most long-standing bilateral relationships, it is possible that certain aspects of these ties are “taken for granted” and not actively worked on to reach full potential. Putrajaya-New Delhi relations are significant for both countries and for the wider Indo-Pacific region – a reality that policymakers must internalise.

The brief diplomatic spat in 2019 was a wake-up call and more importantly, underlined that even old friendships are not impervious to the convolutions that come with the influence of domestic politics on foreign relations. However, the momentary breakdown in ties and thereafter, determined (and necessary) restart of relations during the early days of the pandemic also showcased the resilience, interdependence and maturity of the 6½-decade-old relationship.

In the past year, we have been witnessing a much-anticipated reactivation of Malaysia-India ties. There has been a notable increase in ministerial engagements with the recent Foreign Office Consultations in April 2022, talks between former foreign minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Abdullah and Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar on the side-lines of the June Asean-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the virtual meeting between both defence ministers also in June.

Bilateral trade has also been on a steady upwards trajectory since the events of 2019. India’s exports to Malaysia in the first nine months of 2020 increased by 6.5% to US$4.6 billion (RM20.24 billion) compared with the corresponding period in 2019. India’s imports from Malaysia during the same period reached US$5 billion. In 2021, bilateral trade between both countries expanded by 26% and reached US$17 billion.

Despite these recent “wins” for bilateral ties, it must be stressed that “reactivation” should be perceptive, conscientious, holistic and sustainable. What this means is, there must be an equal focus and acknowledgement of the challenges and pressure points of the relationship as much as there is a need to accelerate cooperation.

Relationship hiccoughs

The events of 2019 and the emerging international order demonstrated that Malaysia-India ties are greatly influenced by domestic politics, non-state actors and, of course, geopolitics. A combination of psychosocial and geopolitical forces impacted on Putrajaya-New Delhi relations and are far more challenging to address, given their “subliminal” nature.

There are several contentious issues in the relationship. The respective political contexts and narratives of Putrajaya and New Delhi on the issue of the extradition of Indian televangelist Zakir Naik are a Pandora’s box of sorts. It is no surprise that this issue is on the backburner with the focus now on resuscitating bilateral relations. There is also a “trend” of people-led protests in Malaysia against certain political factions, domestic policies and statements and national stances in India.

While on the one end the relationship is impacted because of domestic or national issues, the other connected to geopolitics is equally complex. Like most Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia has its own set of challenges when navigating relations with China’s strategic competitors. Whether it is on India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans initiative (IPOI) or even the QUAD, Putrajaya is careful with its posturing while maintaining an independent foreign policy approach. However, it is possible that attempting to take a balanced approach limits opportunities to deepen strategic cooperation with New Delhi.

What is the way forward? For starters, there must be a greater focus and appreciation for the core elements indigenous to the relationship cultivated over the years, which have remained irrepressible in the face of change. People-to-people connectivity, defence cooperation, labour mobility, trade and business and education cooperation are some key examples. There must also be a mutual and conscious effort at trust-building and compartmentalisation of interests, bolstered by a deeper understanding of each other’s national interests. Enhancing these aspects of the relationship cements the importance of ties in both countries and acts as a buffer against any future fraught relation.

Seize ‘other’ opportunities

Strengthening the core elements of relations and identifying shared challenges could also act as a “gateway” to exploring cooperation through frameworks like the IPOI or even India’s Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI). Malaysia’s “annual challenge” of nation-wide floods and related devastation to property and infrastructure could be addressed and mitigated with support from the CDRI initiative. Recognising its value, Malaysia could be the first Southeast Asian country to gain membership into CDRI.

On the IPOI, Malaysia has yet to “respond” officially to the framework but this could change if policymakers at Putrajaya recognise that elements of the IPOI align with the enhanced Malaysia-India strategic partnership – such as maritime security, science, technology and academic cooperation, and trade and connectivity. This understanding of synergies is crucial in the current geopolitical context and working with India within niche areas allows Malaysia to curate its own Indo-Pacific approach that is open and inclusive to all strategic partners.

Malaysia must also capitalise on other “routine” or “organic” aspects of its relationship with India, which are now gaining prominence and traction on the world stage. One is India’s push for food security through focus on millet production. Following the United Nations’ declaration of 2023 as International Year of Millets on India’s proposal last year, New Delhi has embarked on several initiatives promoting food security by embracing the “superfood to fight hunger”.

India has consistently been Malaysia’s top exporter of cereals (including millets). In 2020, India exported US$165 million worth of cereals with a share of 9.3% of Malaysia’s total cereal imports. In 2021, Indian exports of cereals to Malaysia was US$287.72 million, of which millets and buckwheat accounted for about US$343,000. Here, similar to Modi’s recent proposal at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to organise a “millet food festival” next year, Putrajaya can work with India to launch programmes and initiatives to promote sustainable food security – a key priority of Malaysia in recent times.

Cultural tools

Malaysia and India must also recognise the value of “culture-based cooperation systems” to mobilise this unique aspect of relations of “shared culture”. This could include partnering to advance industries that rely on shared cultural practices, such as textile, toymaking, film and even performing arts industries.

India’s renewed focus on these industries through Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan is compatible with Malaysia’s focus on cultural diplomacy through the new foreign policy framework and the need to revitalise this sector in the country. For this, Putrajaya and New Delhi can maximise the role of relevant agencies and mechanisms at their disposal, such as the Malaysia-India Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, memorandum of understanding between the Malaysian Investment Development Authority and Confederation of Indian Industry, Malaysia-India Business Council, Consortium of Indian Industries in Malaysia and the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Indian Cultural Centre.

The enhanced Malaysia-India strategic partnership is an important tool that can be strategically utilised to elevate bilateral ties. But considering how different global and geopolitical contexts are since 2015, perhaps it is sensible to review this framework and introduce initiatives and mechanisms that reflect current realities and priorities.

As important as it is to introduce new cooperation mechanisms, it is equally, if not more important, to divest from initiatives that cannot be realised or no longer a priority in the bilateral relationship. Streamlining cooperation will help manage expectations and support the trust-building process.

As we chart the way forward for the Malaysia-India partnership, it is time to work on elevating and enhancing the relationship to reach its full potential. It is crucial that bilateral relations are in tune with changing social and geopolitical contexts.

For Malaysia-India relations, truly understanding “where we are, what we have and where we are going” will shape its future trajectory. Clear intent, political will and fore vision will support these endeavours.


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