Putrajaya should seize opportunity to play major role in India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative

With Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s maiden visit to Kuala Lumpur earlier this week, Malaysia has now hosted ministers from two pivotal Indian ministries in less than two months.  

In early June, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan met his Malaysian counterparts. Such visits are intended to signal a “high” in bilateral relations following the “turbulence” in 2019 arising from a former prime minister’s remark about Kashmir and India’s Citizenship Amendment Act. The visits this year indicate a commitment to elevated ties and deeper cooperation to address new and complex shared challenges.  

During the meeting between Rajnath and Defence Minister Mohamad Hasan, both sides discussed opportunities to strengthen defence cooperation and enhance the utility of existing mechanisms, such as the Malaysia-India Defence Committee.  

Also notable was the signing of the exchange of letters to amend the 30-year-old memorandum of understanding on bilateral defence cooperation. This will enable more bilateral activities between all three military services in the future.  

This comes after a significant year for Malaysia-India defence cooperation where both countries conducted three security joint exercises in 2022 – Udara Shakti, Samudara Laksamana and Harimau Shakti. 

Rajnath and Mohamad expressed a desire to enhance defence-related science, technology and industry while enhancing maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) cooperation. They also mooted the setting up of a SU-30 forum and strategic affairs working group. 

Another significant but expected development was the inauguration of the first regional office of Indian “Navratna” (companies that can invest up to Rs1,000 crore or 15% of their net worth in a single project without government approval) public sector undertaking (PSU) company Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in KL. This office will be a hub for engagement with the wider Southeast Asian region and act as a gateway for other Indian defence PSUs.  

The idea for this office was put forth when HAL took part in a global tender to supply the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) with fighter jets. While HAL lost out to Korea Aerospace Industries, as a manufacturer of Russian Sukhoi (Su-30MKMs) fighter aircrafts, HAL is still strategically positioned to be engaged by the RMAF as an MRO service provider – more so now with the launch of the regional office. 

The visit and its tangible outcomes see a fresh turn in ties. While military exercises, inter-security forces personnel cooperation, camaraderie and capacity building are regular and prominent aspects of Malaysia-India defence cooperation, venturing into areas like defence industry and defence science and technology collaboration presents an opportunity for both nations not only to diversify but elevate the bilateral and defence relationships beyond mere symbolism.   

These developments, however, do not alter the fact that there is a major missed opportunity – India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). Launched in 2019 as India’s holistic approach to multi-faceted cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, it is one of New Delhi’s highest foreign policy priorities.  

The IPOI outlines seven pillars on maritime security; maritime ecology; maritime resources; capacity building and resource sharing; disaster risk reduction and management; science, technology and academic cooperation; and trade connectivity and maritime transport.   

Vietnam and the Philippines have endorsed IPOI and started cooperation with India through the framework. For Malaysia, in the context of greater defence and security cooperation (both traditional and non-traditional), IPOI is undoubtedly a valuable mechanism to leverage on for two reasons.  

Malaysia would be able to exercise its agency as a relevant and legitimate actor in the Indo-Pacific by endorsing a mechanism other than the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (with its immense symbolic value in terms of semantics and pragmatics) and working with a partner which has been trying to refine and enhance its approach to the Indo-Pacific to address challenges of maritime security and disaster management. 

During the June visit, Muraleedharan underlined that India is eager to work closely with Malaysia to implement IPOI. He stressed that Malaysia is welcome to join and cooperate within any pillar of interest of IPOI. 

The clear takeaway from the evolving Malaysia-India relationship is that Malaysian policymakers must be cognisant of the fact that any attempt at enhancing relations would benefit from Putrajaya’s willingness to work within the IPOI framework.  

Cooperation can be through one or more pillars that are part of Malaysia’s medium- to long-term priorities, such as disaster-risk reduction and management, to ensure it is not simply lip-service or merely for the sake of optics. 

Since the diplomatic spat in 2019, we are witnessing a much-awaited restart in relations through important vistas of cooperation. While policymakers on both sides are optimistic, it is prudent to shape the trajectory of relations by being mindful of priorities, capabilities and flashpoints in the relationship.  

Older patterns and narratives that have shaped relations in the past would not necessarily work now. This realisation is crucial to ensure a stronger Malaysia-India relationship in the new decade. 

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