Despite China’s growing power and influence in the region, Malaysian policymakers have not taken any measures to counter the potential threat posed by their northern neighbour. The balance of threat theory, developed by international relations scholar Stephen Walt, suggests that smaller states should align themselves with allies to bolster their own security when facing a more powerful adversary. Given China’s vast resources and territorial claims, Malaysia’s policymakers have reason to view the country as a potential threat. However, they have yet to take any steps to increase their defences or seek out new alliances. As China continues to strengthen, the question remains: why are Malaysian policymakers not considering China as a threat to their sovereignty and national interests?
Relation between Malaysia and China
According to Stephen Walt, there are four factors in determining the threat perception of a state. Those are, the aggregate capabilities of big power, offensive capability, geographical proximity, and intentions regarding offensive postures. In the case of Malaysia, all four of these elements are present in China’s movement, which Malaysian policymakers should regard as a threat. It is a known fact that Malaysia’s traditional allies are the US, the UK, New Zealand, and Singapore. On the other hand, there are diplomatic agonies pertaining to most of these nations with China. So, if judged by reality, having a strong tie between Malaysia and China will seem unimaginable for several reasons.
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Malaysia has been showing an increasingly strong level of support towards the United States, with its voting pattern in United Nations meetings reflecting a growing trend. Previously voting 85% in favour of the US, experts believe that this movement towards a “hybrid neutrality” state signifies a more pronounced support for the US. While Malaysia recognizes China as a sovereign nation, it views communism as a potential threat due to its controversial positions from an Islamic perspective. The Malaysian conflict of the 1950s between the Malayan Communist Party and allied forces is still fresh in the minds of Malaysians, contributing to growing hostility towards communism as a political ideology, especially amongst the majority Islamic population. Like these, there are many other contemporary reasons for which Malaysians may seek Chinese investment and tourism, but the presence of Chinese military forces is not something they are interested in.
What Malaysia Wants?
Establishing a deep defense relationship with China, such as a shared naval base, is unlikely to happen for Malaysia, as Malaysia is more likely to pursue other forms of collaboration with China, like the sharing of intelligence, joint patrols, etc., despite the challenges of piracy and terrorism. From 1990–2012, the policies taken by the Malaysian policymakers showed that they were taking China as a less-threatening country. In fact, this low-level threat perception in the case of China has been noticed under the governance of three successive leaders: Mahathir Mohammad, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and Najib Tun Razak. All these three leaders never tried to confront China; rather, they actively tried to engage China in establishing relationships, despite their alliance with the US. All these three leaders tried to establish both economic and diplomatic relations with China. However, it is true that the alliance between the UK, US, and other western countries with Malaysia was created during the Cold War era and is prevailing in the present time too. And the cold war happened before the rise of China as a superpower in the world economy. Again, Malaysia is showing no activity from which China may feel forced to stand against this relatively smaller country and take action thereby. So, according to experts, Malaysia’s approach in this case is limited and unfinished. It is thereby, noted by the experts that, an approach to balancing political power, not strategy.
China’s recent activities and Malaysia’s stances
Since 2013, China has been increasing its activities in the disputed parts of the South China Sea, which could potentially be viewed as a threat by Malaysia, although it has not been officially classified as such. While the Chinese navy and air force have occasionally crossed into Malaysia’s maritime zone, the country has thus far remained neutral and refrained from taking any notable actions. Even prominent Malaysian citizens do not consider these incursions a violation of the country’s sovereignty, and therefore do not view it as a significant threat. Mahathir Mohammad said in 2019, “China is not a threat to us at this time. We are not counting them as a threat to our security. But it may happen later.” According to the government of Malaysia, it is better to adopt a defensive attitude than to increase enmity. An increasing relationship with Beijing will be a good component in assessing this defensive attitude towards China. It will be more meaningful than simply increasing security.
Malaysia’s activities, according to experts, suggest that they want to build relationships with the UK and US in order to maintain regional stability, and they also want to build relationships with China in order to maintain regional prosperity. However, Malaysia has adopted a unique set of beliefs as part of its hedging strategy, which has made the country more cautious when it comes to the point that may increase the possibility of worsening its relationship with Beijing.
The threat perception of Malaysia towards China is based on the belief that labelling China as a threat could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This view can be traced back to a statement made by former Malaysian leader Mahathir in 1997, as noted by Malaysian scholar Cheng-Chwee Kuik. Mahathir said, “There is no reason to count China as a threat. If we start counting China as our future enemy, then it will become our present enemy, as they will identify us as our enemy too. Which will give rise to psychological tension thereby.”
To summarize, Malaysia differentiates between tactical threats, such as the daily insecurity caused by China’s grey zone activities in its waters, and threats that could impact its core national interests. The latter primarily revolve around deepening economic ties with China. As long as China does not cross Malaysia’s red lines, it is comfortable tolerating actions that others have deemed hostile, including incursions into its maritime zone or airspace, because these tactical threats fall short of posing a danger to Malaysia’s core national interests.
Why is Malaysia becoming protectionist?
With a powerful and enduring China as a constant factor in its foreign policy, Malaysia requires a long-term outlook to manage its relationship with China. This process of acceptance began in the 1980s, when Malaysia reassessed its relationship with the West. It saw evidence that the United States could not be relied upon to cater to its regime’s security needs or align with its vision of regional security because of the U.S.’s withdrawal from Vietnam and its lack of willingness to help Colombia, which later cost Malaysia financial losses. As a result, Malaysia was forced to diversify its relationships, including with China.
In conclusion, to avoid the risks of being caught up in great power competition, smaller states such as Malaysia strive to maintain equidistance and remain neutral between competing powers. This approach allows them to benefit from all sides without incurring the risks associated with aligning too closely with one side over the other. However, this position also involves a trade-off, as a completely neutral stance may result in missing out on potential benefits. Therefore, it is essential for smaller states to actively seek opportunities to maximise benefits while preserving their maneuverability. Although there are uncertainties, costs, and risks involved, the desire for gain tends to drive rational actors to take steps to acquire and maximise benefits whenever possible. And Malaysia, in this case is trying to act according to this principle.