-By Syed 'Akasyah bin Syed Zulkifli
As tensions grow and rivalries continue to be stoked up in the fire of competition, Malaysia, a relatively developing nation, looks onwards to maintaining neutrality in a polarizing world. The US and China in its great-power competition looks towards being the sole superpower in a unipolar world, with the US afraid of losing its position, and China eager to replace the US at the top of the international order. A concept well known in international relations, the Thucydides Trap, argues that in the process of displacement of power, it is highly likely that war is the outcome within such situations. This puts Malaysia, which borders the South China Sea in a very precarious position, noting that the South China Sea seems to be set as the next stage for conflict to happen, especially with the increased presence of the US in the South China Sea, with three different US Air Carriers in the region, something China would never be happy with. The reality of the situation is that the US and China look to apply a zero-sum policy when it comes to the region. In the face of great powers, the choice of one or the other puts states such as Malaysia in a precarious position with the ultimate fear of the retaliation of a great power.
Viewed in the lens of comprehensive security, maintaining neutrality becomes increasingly complicated. In the facet of economic reliance, China as Malaysia’s biggest trading partner, brings about a fear of dependency developing as a legitimate concern when viewed in the socioeconomic lenses, China’s predatory foreign policy continues to exist as a barrier to independent economic security and stability. The existence of China’s economic dominance remains a potential threat to Malaysia, noting that there have been applications of debt-trap diplomacy in places such as Sri Lanka and the Hambantota Port, it is thus a justified fear of the state of Malaysia when dealing with China. Identifying how to navigate away from such dependency would be a step into the right direction. However, it is important to also note that the only way in which this situation can exist is by the existence of the benefits that China as an economic powerhouse provides towards developing states such as Malaysia. The practical reality of China’s position is that it remains the largest market in the world, and as a country that produces goods and raw materials, China is a partner that is irreplaceable. The total export from Malaysia to China lies at 15.5%, with a total of US$46.3 Billion (RM207.655 Billion), a figure that cannot be replaced by any other trading partners.
Additionally, when viewed through the lenses of conventional security, the constant encroachment of China’s warships into the South China Sea, especially into sovereign territory defined under international law as Economic Exclusive Zones (EEZ) is an unacceptable situation. It continues to exist as a conventional security threat with no acknowledgement towards the rule of international law such as the UN convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS). The harsh reality of being a developing state is that there is close to no ability for Malaysia to respond necessarily through force, on paper, there is limited ability for Malaysia to put itself against hegemonic superpowers such as the US or China, where military budgets are incomparable in size. Instead, as a mechanism, Malaysia focuses on the application of diplomacy as a means of foreign relations, establishing key relations in order to ensure sovereignty is maintained. The core principle of Malaysia in its foreign policy is the maintenance of neutrality especially as an ASEAN member, Malaysia practices the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN). The foreign policy strategy that Malaysia practices when it comes to security, is to establish stronger relations with other states such as the formation of the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA). Malaysia seeks to rely on its neutral status as a deterrent from increased pressure from the hegemonic powers like the US and China, the strategy of ASEAN centrality ensures that Malaysia does not come into an antagonistic position in between both powers. If Malaysia sided with the US, it only puts Malaysia to be seen as a threat to China, and this is vice versa.
Therefore in the maintenance of neutrality, Malaysia is able to fill the security gap by the existence of the US in the region. The US exists as a balancing power to the continued dominance of China in the South China Sea, practicing its freedom of seas and skies navigation exercises in the region as a means of ensuring its presence is known within the South China Sea and as a bold statement that China cannot continue to exert its influence without the fear of a response. Thus, as a conclusion, the application of neutrality allows for Malaysia to not necessarily be seen as an immediate threat to China nor to the US.
Finally, answering the main question still remains, is Malaysia able to retain neutrality in the face of a great power competition? The author seeks to argue that yes, even in an ever growing complexity in the region, there is ability for Malaysia to remain neutral in the face of the great-power competition. However, there exists multiple facets and factors when it comes to the ability to maintain its neutrality, on an international level it is extremely dependent on the crafting of foreign policy dependent on status quo, there is an imperative need for Malaysia to retain relevance in its application of foreign policy, avoiding faux pas in diplomatic relations is extremely critical especially when errors would mean the reaction of one or another great power. In conclusion, this paper seeks to argue that there is an increasing amount of complexity in maintaining neutrality, however it depends on the competency of Malaysia comprehensively, from the application of foreign policy, all the way to the application of economic policies domestically. The only way in which Malaysia can continue to prosper, is when Malaysia continues to remain steadfast and competent in ensuring that the sovereignty of the state can be maintained, and if the means is through the application of neutrality, especially since it has been a successful strategy, Malaysia must continue to practice neutrality accurately.