Manila’s New Geopolitical Push And Malaysia Must Step Up – Analysis
Malaysia Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s visit to the Philippines signals a common platform of shared threats, worries and needs. Both face the same threat, and both have the same vulnerability in traditional and non traditional challenges.
Manila at least has greater US assurances of support and therefore has greater deterrence capacity with clearer military support to deter greater Beijing’s hard-core bellicosity. Malaysia, on the other hand, has vague deterrence assurances.
Manila has more structured deterrence credibility, now with the revival of Subic Bay’s potential new US presence. Malaysia has no direct military assurances, and only relies on diplomatic goodwill and existing conflict prevention tools.
Manila will want to have more expanded deterrence other than Western reliance, and will want Malaysia’s strength in shaping regional and diplomatic direction and solution and using diplomatic pressure and influence as an added tool in its arsenal.
The Philippines will also want to form a quadruple formation with Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia to strengthen joint interoperability and defence cooperation, where all face the same Beijing threat.
Direct bilateral challenges including the Sulu claim and MILF will be given high priority, but both will want greater superseding factors to cooperate for the greater threat from Beijing. Anwar wanted to tone down the Sabah and Sulu issue, seeing the superseding more important factor of joint capacity against more long term pressing challenges. This challenge is entirely different from the South China Sea threat, and that it involves no official state led entity and that it has not provoked any untoward incident between the parties in conflict. The Lahad Datu incident involved militant supporters of one of the claimants of the Sultan of Sulu’s throne, but no state elements. Both governments understood the reality and needed to treat this with caution, and tried to work together to minimize the incident.
Kuala Lumpur will hope to seek Manila’s established US presence to also solicit greater US effort to link and extend to KL the same basics of military assurance and cooperation, but short of a direct troops presence.
Once a potential greater US presence is established in Malaysia, the US will have even greater and comprehensive military deterrence and presence in deterring Chinese almost free hand in the region. This enhanced capacity of Washington is in a triad capacity with renewed integrated connectivity and firepower from the bases in Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia.
More significant US counterbalance presence in Sabah and Sarawak and the East Peninsula to link up with presence in the Philippines remains vital and strategic in pushing back against Beijing. Malaysia is seen as the weakest link in the region in standing up against Beijing, at least in direct hard messages and readiness to stand up against Beijing’s agenda.
Therefore, Manila venture will also provide greater openings for Malaysia, and Manila will want to tap into Malaysia’s regional leadership and credentials in economic supply chain resilience and resources to shore up Manila’s internal economic structure and disparity.US will want greater and broader Manila-KL ties as it will bolster its regional containment agenda and strength.
It’s been more than three decades since the Philippines ordered US troops to withdraw from the country, ending an American presence. The greater threat now to Manila has compelled it to seek the return of Washington’s might, this time with real possibilities of an all out affront or a direct impact from the fallout in the South China Sea or the repercussions from Taiwan. Manila needed Washington’s proven deterrence capacity to shield it from the inevitable and growing presence of Beijing, although it tries hard in constantly giving assurances to Beijing that Manila is not seeking a direct confrontational stance and response to Beijing’s increased bellicosity towards the South China Sea claim.
For the US, it remains a huge strategic boost for its containment effort and that it will also provide direct support for its deterrence measure against Taiwanese invasion by Beijing. Manila is seen by Beijing as the weakest link among all the claimants of the South China Sea dispute, with a military or deterrence power that are barely functioning. It has not, and could not stand up to Beijing’s renewed overwhelming hard power push in the area, with years of cabbage strategy of massive engulfment of contested territories with its naval might, bulldozing its way past the hapless naval capacity of the Philippines.
Salami slicing concept of slowly and gradually increasing its military dominance in the area has not been ditched, as both sides knew of the eventuality of Beijing’s purpose and goals as it moves fast to utilise both its hard and soft power approach in the region, while increasing its militia and coast guard vessels in an integrated drive to expand its claim.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s is looking to bolster its credentials and in pandering to the growing local sentiments of wanting the government to stand up stronger against Chinese bullying and aggression, with the recent laser incident and the near constant harassment of Filipino fishing ships by Chinese presence triggering the latest public outcry. This is on top of the persistent incursions that have further exposed the vulnerability of Manila without US counterpresence.
The ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore in its report on Feb 9 found that nearly 79% of Filipinos would choose America over China, reflecting prevailing pro-US sentiments. This is in contrast to Malaysia’s public perspective which steered towards Beijing in the same poll. The disparity continues in the media landscape and coverage of the South China Sea issue, with large coverage and highly engaging public platform and awareness in the issue in the Philippines, as opposed to the often muted and subdued response.
This is also largely caused by the systematic bypassing of the issue by the local media and the pressures from the top and even Beijing’s extensive influential presence and pressure for the local media to halt any negative or detrimental focus on this issue. Selective publications and extensive censoring on anything that is deemed to be “provocative” or controversial that will dampen Beijing’s agenda or image have created this structural and systemic trapped dogma and subservient mentality that have stymied local perception, opinion and awareness of the reality on hand.
PM Anwar has strongly indicated Malaysia’s stance against fighting aggression and bellicosity with the same hard power aggression, therefore downplaying the prospects of Malaysia in welcoming any form of increased military presence that could escalate tensions. This is a clear message in reiterating Kuala Lumpur’s decades old stance of treating the region as one that is free from external influence and through the conventional conflict prevention mechanisms. Malaysia’s approach to the South China Sea dispute also differs largely from Manila, Beijing weighs the cost benefit returns in best responding to the different responses by both countries.
The extent of Malaysia’s success in relying on the low profile and behind the scenes engagement with Beijing over the sensitive dispute and the series of Beijing incursions has been very much debatable, although many suggest it has yielded little to no impact, even backfiring in many ways. Manila’s growing intolerance against Beijing’s brazen show of force and disregard for international law has been met with greater bullying and bellicosity from China, but that has predominantly been led by the huge disparity in Manila’s deterrence capacity and its little geopolitical and economic importance to Beijing.
The fulcrum has now been tilted with the ease of access by Washington in being able to both respond to each of Beijing’s measures and also in providing a clear and credible early cost to Beijing that will dissuade further penetrating acts of sovereignty violations to Manila.
Malaysia tries to take regional moral high road in a mixed path in trying to rely on confidence building measures and in expanding the economic interdependence and regional strength in trying to incur higher cost for any military measures from both sides. It remains rooted to this wishful thinking of building a more integrated and collective regional approach that will provide greater joint capacity that is capable of steering its own weight and path in maintaining the region’s neutrality and cementing its centrality at the same time.
The core fundamental tenet that us missing in this approach is that ASEAN and regional behaviour and capacity, both individually or collectively, remain severely inadequate and lack the maturity and proven credentials both in hard power capabilities and potential leadership in economic tool in turning them to be effective measures in changing the power parity or in deterring external powers’ pursuits.
Marcos is cognisant of this fact, and he is pursuing a two-pronged path of seeking greater direct US counterbalance force which he knew will single handedly solve Manila’s most pressing security vulnerability, while at the same time trying to get Beijing to recognise that the only path forward is to forge a mutually respectful relationship based on the same basis of big-small power relationship that is not necessarily dominant, one sided and exploitative in nature.
The difference with Malaysia is that while both are trying to get the best of both worlds, Malaysia’s economy is too deeply intertwined and reliant on Beijing, and this is exploited to further corner our options, with no room to seek further Western countermeasures, lest inviting total economic blackmail by Beijing and increased military intimidation concurrently.
Manila is bold to state its stance both publicly and privately, and is clear on its path forward in inviting the West and the US to its foreign policy orbit, while Malaysia is hoping to lend the weight of historical affiliation and friendship to talk things out and hoping for the best of Beijing’s own self restraint. Kuala Lumpur is reluctant to push for greater direct measure of urgently seeking more US overtures, at the risks and expense of burning the long bridge of investment put in to appease Beijing, choosing to remain low key and ignorant of the realities on hand and its hapless deterrence and security vulnerability.
Marcos has looked far ahead, in getting the lead to explore bilateral defence ties with regional players, especially with Japan in the reciprocal military access agreement. Joint patrols are also being considered with Australia.
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement is being expanded with the US, which allows the US to rotate troops for prolonged stays as well as build and operate facilities at designated sites. It signals a growing evidence and consistency for Washington’s long-promised pivot to Asia being finally underway and here to stay.
It remains to be seen the extent of Malaysia’s regional and expansive foreign policy and security approach in facing these new threats, as to whether it can successfully stay ahead of the curve and move rapidly to gain the needed shield. The visits to the Philippines and a string of regional neighbours preceding that reflect the immediate regional priority for the new Malaysian leadership, but it lacks substantive and future driven foresight in its fundamental essence without real and credible reimagining and reorientation of its China dilemma.