Projecting Malaysia as a Middle Power: How Defence Diplomacy Complements Our Foreign Policy Agenda
Assoc Prof Farish A. Noor (Nanyang Technological University NTU, Singapore)
As a nation-state that is situated at the heart of Maritime Southeast Asia, Malaysia is aware of its long historical presence in the region and the manner in which the polities of Southeast Asia have survived and succeeded by hedging and balancing themselves vis-à-vis the more powerful polities outside the region. The practice of balancing however has become more difficult and complex in the light of the growing contestation between the great powers of the world, as noted in the work by T.V. Paul (see: T.V. Paul, Restraining Great Powers: Soft Balancing from Empires to the Global Era, 2019), and increasingly small to medium powers have been put under pressure to ‘take sides’ in the partisan rivalries between America, China, Russia and other rising military powers in the world.
It is normal and necessary for Malaysia to place its national interest first, and to that end Malaysian foreign policy has sought to present Malaysia as a Middle Power at both the regional and international arena. As a founding member of ASEAN, Malaysia’s primary security agenda has been to ensure neutrality and peace in the ASEAN region and to increase co-operation and understanding among the ASEAN states in order to minimize the risk of external threats to Malaysia’s sovereignty from within the ASEAN region itself. Beyond the ASEAN region, Malaysia has sought to make its voice heard on matters of global importance and to insist on the fundamental principle that all states are entitled to protect their sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.
The world today has become an increasingly unstable space as a result of the disruptions brought about by rapid globalization, unprecedented urbanization, advances in healthcare (which has resulted in rapidly growing populations and a new ageing demographic in developed countries), the 4th industrial revolution (with its attendant global communications architecture that includes social media and the internet) as well as the rise of communitarian reactions against the perceived ‘threat’ of globalization (manifest in events such as the Brexit vote, the rise of extremist parties in Europe, etc.)
Defence diplomacy – understood here in terms of the peaceful deployment of military personnel, capabilities and resources – will play an increasingly important role as a means of both projecting Malaysia’s Middle-Power status and as a tool of bilateral/multilateral bridge-building in the ASEAN region and beyond. Malaysia’s active and visible participation in multilateral organisations such as ADMM+ is key to the maintenance of Malaysia’s place and role as a competent and reliable international actor in this regard.
In the context of ASEAN, it is imperative that Malaysia continues to develop its cultural-political bridges with its closest neighbors, as the whole region now faces a range of combined challenges that may in time threaten the safety, security and neutrality of ASEAN as a whole. Competing territorial claims and the return of great power politics to this part of the world entails the rise of insecurity and apprehension among member states, and opens the way for narrow forms of exclusive nationalist-populist politics to gain the upper hand. In such a situation, defence diplomacy can play a crucial role in developing mutual understanding and knowledge of each other and trust between the member states of ASEAN, thereby opening channels of dialogue – both formal and informal – that may pre-empt the possible escalation of crises and also bolster fellow-feeling and a sense of a collective ASEAN identity which can be a buffer against centrifugal, divisive tendencies in the region. For decades the Malaysian armed forces and police force have engaged in joint-exercises, staff visits, joint study groups, etc. with its neighbours and such efforts need to be intensified so as to ensure that the next generation of Malaysian senior officers and security personnel will develop and maintain a rapport with their counterparts across the region.
On a wider international level, Malaysia has also lent its weight and support to peace-keeping initiatives that have had the universal sanction of the member states of the United Nations and other international bodies. Complementing Malaysia’s foreign policy – which has been consistent from the creation of the Federation of Malaya/Malaysia in 1957/63 until today, Malaysia’s defence diplomacy at the international level has been proactive and non-partisan, thus conveying Malaysia’s intent to be taken seriously as a Middle Power that has no territorial ambitions beyond its borders, a reliable partner in international peace-keeping initiatives and a state that has a foreign policy that is consistent.
In the light of today’s growing uncertainties and the potential eruption of Great Power rivalry and conflict – that can manifest in the form of proxy wars and conflicts as well – it is vital that Malaysia maintains its image as a principled country that seeks peace and stability within and without its borders, and a state that is not beholden to the interest and agenda of any particular Great Power. Malaysia has also demonstrated that it will not be drawn into the proxy conflicts of other states and this has been demonstrated by its conduct from the Cold War until the present, and whenever possible Malaysia has sought wider international consensus and support on matters related to conflict and humanitarian crises in other parts of the world.