By Tun Daim Zainuddin

Source: Inaugural Perwira Dialogue, 22 January 2019


           Malaysia does not get embroiled in other people’s disputes or conflicts of interest. However, this pragmatism should not be mistaken for apathy. Malaysia will, as it has in the past, take a stand when her interests are at risk. Malaysia takes a stand even when her own interests are not immediately affected, based on accepted principles and practices in the community of nations. We have done so in our stand against the South African apartheid of the 1960s, and continue to support the fight for Palestinian self-determination today.

           Principles, standards and practices, based on international law, are important for global order. For medium-sized and small members of international society particularly, they afford protection against the caprices of the big powers when they decide to flex their muscles. Malaysia took a principled stand against the US’ illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, and continues to oppose the US’ bullying tactics against Iran despite the pre-existing agreement which forms the basis for monitoring the Iranian nuclear programme.

           Similarly, in the various disputes in the South China Sea, where Malaysia has direct interests, our stand is that there must be adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982. While we may support confidence-building measures such as negotiation towards a code of conduct in the South China Sea to avoid untoward incidents, we do not concede on the sovereign right of territorial integrity against China’s extensive claims. Sovereignty and territorial integrity are the basis of the existence of nation states in international society. When they are violated, nations can go to war.

           Non-traditional matters that can violate territory, such as the flow of refugees across borders, can also be a threat to national security. But countries causing that flow hide behind their right of domestic jurisdiction, even as international law is evolving with Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as the norm for international intervention. As can be seen in Europe, and with the treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar in our own region, the consequences of irresponsible domestic action cannot be contained, and eventually spread to other countries. Clearly the court of world public opinion is insufficient in exercise of R2P. The International Criminal Court is still nascent, with many states not accepting its jurisdiction. It is however a start. 

           In the development of international society towards becoming a community of nations, various forms of dispute settlement have been developed to avoid war and costly conflict. Two debilitating world wars resulted in the desire for peace, however difficult it may be to maintain it. Malaysia and many other peace-loving states embrace these dispute settlement mechanisms. For instance, both the 2008 Pedra Branca territorial dispute with Singapore, and the 2002 Ligitan and Sipadan territorial dispute with Indonesia were taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for peaceful settlement. ICJ aside, states can also refer disputes to arbitration, conciliation, mediation, the use of third-party good offices and, of course, direct negotiation.

           An exemplary approach which could be reflected in the context of the South China Sea disputes, is the agreement between Malaysia and Thailand to have a Joint Development Area (JDA) in the Gulf of Thailand over the overlapping continental shelf claims, and to establish a Malaysia-Thailand Joint Authority, a juristic entity to assume the rights and responsibilities of both countries in exploration and exploitation of non-living natural resources, especially petroleum, in the JDA. Malaysia passed the Malaysia-Thailand Joint Authority Act as part of its national legislation in 1990. As international society integrates further at regional and international levels, nation states are expected to be working ever closer together with enhanced common interests.

           In 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama wrote his book titled The End of History, celebrating the triumph of western liberal democracy as the overriding global system. But it was not to be, despite a few misleading years under the Clinton administration. After Soviet Union disbanded and some years of confusion, Russia rose as a recalcitrant state under Putin, opposing the perceived western encroachment on his country’s place in the world. The US began to decline, dating back to their confused response to 9/11 in 2001. This was capped by the 2008 Western financial crisis - a reflection of greed, excess, regulatory, systemic and governmental failure - from which Western nations have yet to recover.

           This brings us to the rise of China, which offered an alternative social, economic and political model of success. The continued economic growth and expansion of military might makes China a formidable force. Despite the many challenges in China, and that the decline of the US does not mean its demise, the Chinese model is nevertheless a successful one.

           Globalization, which was supposed to have brought the world closer together, has turned on itself in significant disintegrative ways. Those who gained the most from globalization, particularly in the West, have become disengaged from the Global South and alienated the less globalized segments of their own local populace. This is not just a function of vast untenable income disparities, but also of a cultural chasm between the outward and inward looking.

           The rise of President Donald Trump and the support for Brexit were reactions to a perceived loss of economic and cultural identity. It is easy to express opposition to jingoism and gain popularity with Western liberal intellectuals, but this is precisely the problem – the echo chambers of globalised public intellectuals who remain disconnected from a huge segment of the society they purport to represent.

           As if this uncertainty was not enough, major technological advancements have caused further disruptions to life, work and society which in turn have implications on international relations. Control of data and cyber security are already live issues of international politics. Now, the balance of power in the near future hinges on technological domination.

           This is exemplified in US-China relations. China’s technological prowess and economic dominance, as seen in the “Made in China 2025” blueprint for Chinese high-tech supremacy and their superior 5G technology, have drawn US accusations of intellectual property theft and of using commercial technology companies to serve state interests and there is good reason to fear the exponential rise of China’s 5G technology.

           Today we also face an encroachment on “digital sovereignty”. While the speed of transmission and storage of information has greatly improved our daily lives, we need to stop and question the price we are paying for this convenience. This information is not just what we consciously post – data on what we do, where we go, what we buy, and what we say can be extracted from common everyday devices. What are the security, defence, privacy, and strategic implications of China’s undoubtable leadership in this field?

           The Thucydides Trap, a term coined by Harvard scholar Graham Allison, identifies one simple cause for war: A rising power threatening to displace a ruling one. Just as the rise of Athens and the fear it instilled in Sparta made war inevitable, the US-China Trade War is the result of the unstoppable rise of China coming to head with the immovable resistance of the US. Caught in between the major players of this New Cold War are the middle powers and small states. Here in Southeast Asia, we feel the pressure to take one side or the other, and of our actions being interpreted as such, regardless of intention.

           In 1970, Malaysia led ASEAN to declare the region as a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality (ZOPFAN), but that was during the first Cold War that seemed a whole world away. The New Cold War takes place in a modern world that is much smaller and interconnected, and in China we face a nation that is highly proximate geographically, culturally and, more importantly, economically.

           In reviewing or terminating the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) Project and other lop-sided contracts, our actions were viewed as being against China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). An action by Malaysia, purely in its own self-interest, was viewed as anti-Chinese, by both China and the US. Malaysia’s decision has nothing to do with China or the US but we are pulled into them whether we like it or not. We must accept that this is the situation we face and become adept at handling what may seem straightforward issues that become difficult and complex.

           Our diplomacy and diplomats must not only understand the new dynamics in the global balance of power, but also appreciate the conjuncture of many factors - political, economic, social, cultural and technological - that should underlie understanding of issues and decision-making. The days of traditional Harold Nicolson-style diplomacy, grounded in the classics and political history, are long gone. Foreign ministries must now be multi-disciplinary, multi-tasked, and able to think laterally. Sometimes, to think the unthinkable.

           We often make pro-world and pro-Malaysia statements. For instance, we are opposed to the US trade war on China, and want to see a fair rules-based international trading system. We believe that the economic growth of China is important to the global economy. We believe that Chinese markets should be more open and private enterprise should be better represented in its economy. We might err on the side of better intellectual property protection and stand against the use of technology to threaten states. These are not declarations of support for either the US or China, but rather, self-evident economic truths and statements that serve our own national interests. They must be communicated as such.

           Coordination and the sharing of information across missions and ministries have become critical. Although this is facilitated by technology, it is by no way happening enough, certainly not in Malaysia. Wisma Putra negotiated what may seem like a harmless general declaration with the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership Vision 2030, adopted in Singapore last November. In doing so, they must consider how it can be useful to resolve specific issues, like making BRI contracts more effective and transparent in conjunction with the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025. They should consult the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). MITI in turn should have thought through the document and consulted others.

           The more I think of this, the more I am convinced we need a great clearing-house in decision-making on foreign policy involving at least Wisma Putra and MITI. There are examples where the two are combined in a single ministry, called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

           The world has become thoroughly complex. We face a multiplicity of issues, usually connected with disparate policy linkages, coming at us from all directions. Clearly, it cannot any more be the conduct of foreign policy as usual. Is Malaysia, our thinking, and the structure for that conduct of our policies, up to the challenge? This is a question we must urgently address if we care about Malaysia’s future, along with the massive reforms the Pakatan Harapan government has to embark on.

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