One year of Anwar’s govt yields stronger focus on Asean, Middle East, balancing major powers

Last November, Anwar Ibrahim was elected as the 10th Malaysian prime minister, at a turbulent time both domestically and internationally. Malaysian politics was in turmoil following the “Sheraton move” in 2020, which disposed of the 22-month-old Pakatan Harapan government.

Over the next two years, the Covid crisis, economic pressures, political infighting and another change in government dominated Malaysian politics, leaving foreign policy in the backseat. Against this turbulent backdrop, Malaysians sought a leader who could provide stability while also elevating its international presence. The nation was not so much seeking a strongman as competent and effective leadership, at home and abroad.

In this context, Anwar’s election was a welcome one. It reinforced political legitimacy amid uncertainty, while also raising hope that political stability would allow his government to address the country’s various foreign policy challenges.

The new government unveiled quickly the “Malaysia Madani” slogan, which aspires for a civil and inclusive nation. For foreign policy, this meant speaking up when necessary and actively pursuing Malaysia’s national interests through diplomacy.

A year later, Malaysia’s foreign policy has been noticeably more active. While it is encouraging, some of the prime minister’s actions have raised questions.

Three areas of focus to Anwar’s foreign policy

Anwar’s foreign policy priorities have had three main areas of focus: Asean, the Middle East and major-power relations.

After taking office, Anwar made it a priority to cultivate close relations with heads of Asean member states. Within his first year, he visited all Asean countries with the exception of Myanmar. Anwar also held a meeting with Timor Leste Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao at the the sidelines of the Asean summit in Jakarta in September. Timor-Leste currently holds an observer status in Asean and aims to ascend the bloc by 2025, when Malaysia next holds the rotating chairmanship. This intensive regional diplomacy is unprecedented for a Malaysian prime minister and demonstrates Anwar’s commitment to the bloc.

Malaysia has also upheld its stance on the Myanmar issue. Anwar has been particularly vocal on the country’s humanitarian crisis and has expressed disappointment in the lack of progress of the Five-Point Consensus. Arguing that “non-interference is not a licence for indifference”, Anwar has urged other Asean leaders to hold the junta accountable to human rights violations in Myanmar, raising the issue during meetings with Presidents Joko Widodo, Ferdinand Marcos and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Second to the ASEAN region, the Middle East has seen the most official visits by the Malaysian prime minister. During his first year in office, Anwar has made trips to Turkey, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as attended forums including the emergency Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting and the Asean-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit.

The Middle East agenda was aimed initially at strengthening the Malaysia’s ties with the Muslim world and boost economic relations. However, the conflict in Gaza has shifted focus towards the humanitarian crisis. Since 7th October, Malaysia has taken a fiery stance on the Israel-Gaza war, with Anwar emerging as one of Israel’s most vocal critics. This comes as no surprise as Anwar has been a consistent supporter of the Palestinian cause since his days as a student leader in the 1970s.

Anwar raised the issue at the extraordinary OIC meeting, Asean-GCC summit and Apec summit, as well as in private discussions with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is noteworthy that this diplomatic activity all occurred within the span of a month. The diplomatic vigour on this issue has bolstered Anwar’s image in the Muslim world while raising Malaysia’s profile on the global stage.

The third major focus of Anwar’s foreign policy involves Malaysia’s relations with the major powers, specifically the United States and China. In his maiden press conference, Anwar emphasised that Malaysia would remain non-aligned and would not risk being entangled in major-power rivalry. However, the past year has been marked by a warming of relations with China, raising eyebrows about Malaysia’s geostrategic orientations.

Anwar has held several high-level meetings with senior Chinese officials – including Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Prime Minister Li Qiang and President Xi Jinping – and travelled to China twice this year, in March and September.

His visits to China typically conclude with several memorandum of understandings (MoU) worth billions in investments, a takeaway that Malaysians regard as fruitful and beneficial for the local economy. Anwar has also publicly extended three invitations to Xi to visit Malaysia.

On the other hand, the prime minister has not held meetings with senior US officials. While Malaysia-US relations remain stable, it is lukewarm at best. Comparatively, Malaysia-China relations are far more dynamic.

The lack of diplomatic effort with Washington comes as a surprise as some observers preconceived Anwar to be more pro-Western, given the US support he received from the US when he was incarcerated. Amid heightening geopolitical tensions, this causes concerns by the US and its allies that Anwar’s government is more China-leaning than anticipated.

Anwar has defended his government’s China policy, arguing that the closeness in bilateral relations stems from geographical proximity, deep cultural ties, and the fact that China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 14 consecutive years. Moreover, 2024 marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China, which is likely to see efforts to elevate bilateral relations to greater heights. This explains Anwar’s eagerness to receive Xi in Kuala Lumpur.

Likewise, Washington has not been as forthcoming to Malaysia as hoped. US leaders’ recent trips to Southeast Asia have overlooked Malaysia, prioritising other countries such as Vietnam. The last senior US official to visit Malaysia was by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in December 2021, one year before Anwar took office. The lack of diplomatic warmth is seemingly mutual and suggests that both sides have other priorities.

Conceptualising Anwar’s foreign policy

Through these three areas of focus, it is evident that the Malaysian government’s foreign policy is characterised by the desire to strengthen relations with partners, pursue economic prosperity, and champion human rights.

Anwar’s active diplomacy to strengthen relations, especially with Asean member states, is a notable effort as the bloc grows increasingly divided. It demonstrates the growing role Malaysia is playing in cultivating stronger and more stable relations in the region. Second, the focus on investments and economic opportunities aligns with the government priority to boost the economy. Third, the increased focus on championing human rights reflects on the moral character of the nation, synergising with the concept of Malaysia Madani’s “civil nation”.

Taken together, Anwar’s foreign policy undoubtedly serves Malaysian national interests. The prime minister has also been particularly vocal and active in diplomacy in contrast to his predecessors, who tended to neglect foreign policy. One year is a short period for diplomacy, especially for a small power. At a time of geopolitical flux, Anwar’s active diplomacy is commendable and indicates strong intent for the coming years.

Moving forward, Anwar’s government should not limit its foreign policy efforts simply to being vocal. Effectively exercising the nation’s voice is crucial for Malaysia to be more visible in international politics, and this has been apparent in this past year. However, to be a relevant power will also require Anwar to lead a foreign policy that is proactive, one which takes on a more significant role in international affairs. It must be a foreign policy of “doing”, not merely “saying”.

Between now and the end of his term in 2027, the prime minister could shape Malaysia into one of the most strategic players in the region, and his ability to rally consensus in Asean would be a key test of his leadership. This momentum will be critical in the lead up to Malaysia’s chairmanship of Asean in 2025.

This article first appeared in The Diplomat on 18 December 2024.

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