Malaysia Should Wisely Reorient Against China’s New Regional Push – Analysis


The just concluded Joint Sword drills in imitating a blockade and future invasion of Taiwan, provides a clear messaging intent from Beijing that it has no intention to back down from its ultimate red line of preventing Taiwan’s independence and a fall into the orbit of the US-backed West.

This, on the back of a similar show of force last August during Pelosi’s visit, is not entirely aimed to warn the Taiwanese leadership on the consequences of the friendly embrace of the US or as a deterrent against Taiwanese independence move. The predominant aim is to lure the West and Taipei into a greater trap of potential miscalculations in responses, any of which would be used as a pretext in taking the long intended measures on Taiwan and blaming it on the West’s “provocations”.

These two dangerous military drills and show of force in intimidating Taiwan, further underlined the no-holds barred approach in ensuring the Taiwan issue remains the ultimate lifeline for the legitimacy, pride and survival not only for China but most importantly for the elites of the Chinese Communist Party and for Xi himself. Faced with growing internal economic decline, growing local discontent and demands, challenges of the demographic reality, and a narrowing time window for Beijing to match with the West’s long term advantage in economic and hard power measures and parity, the Taiwan issue needs to be in the constant top radar of public and national urgency.

This would ensure the continuous buy-in from the public, in securing the Party’s legitimacy and support and in continuously playing the hypernationalistic card in whipping up nationalism through the victim card of accusing the West in provoking China and in containing its rise. Already, every move by Taiwanese leaders in embracing the West or its current few diplomatic allies is being used as a convenient pretext for Beijing in upping the military ante and provocations, and these drills in turn can be used favourably in real time eventual future conflict.

Regional responses must be integrated in nature. The largest combat exercises between American and Filipino forces that started on Tuesday in the Philippines, reflected the pressing need for joint deterrence strength and readiness to provide clear deterring messages. The U.S. was allocating more than $100 million to build infrastructure at the sites, where Americans would be stationed. The expanded number of bases to host US military assets and personnel will further squeeze Beijing’s options and intent in using expansionary hard power bellicosity in pressing ahead with its swarming and cabbage tactics, in overwhelming and seizing control of territories by surrounding successive layers of Chinese naval ships and China Coast Guard vessels.

It is meant as an unyielding message to Beijing that the more it tries to push the US out of its perceived backyard using various methods, including divide and conquer strategy and economic influence, the more resolute the arch of like minded democracies and freedom loving nations will consolidate. These exercises also serve as the needed response to the flexing of Beijing’s muscles in Taiwan.

Xi’s new strategic calculations in the short term arrangement are one that of capitalising on America’s distractions in its local run-up for presidential election and the obligations in Europe and Ukraine, where Beijing will conveniently rely on Moscow to continuously distract Washington’s balancing power and further stretching its military capacity in both Europe and Indo Pacific. Other strategies include upping its charm offensive as a global player in dictating diplomatic and economic terms in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and all three vital zones of Asia including the South, Southeast and Central areas.

Recent wins for Beijing in diplomatic influence with the Tehran-Riyadh détente and in trying to compel regional economic players to pivot away from the dollar dominated economy, all have provided returns for Xi’s new medium term vision. His divide and conquer strategy for Southeast Asia has gained steam and positive returns with his courting of Europe, where most European players face a similar dilemma of needing the economic and market lifeline of Beijing, while trapped with adhering to broader Western calls for greater stances in calling out Beijing’s tactics and actions.

Macron’s speech in calling for a recalibration of Europe’s bandwagoning with the US on China and Taiwan while wrapping up his China tour has again highlighted the success of Xi’s multi-layered strategic string pulling, in getting France to lead a European divide of slowly jettisoning the region from Washington’s sphere of assured influence.

With Xi’s new tenure and firm grip on the leadership and military power, past strategy of being patient and staying low is ditched for the new era where might is right, forced by the inevitable changing reality of closing time frame for him to cement his legacy and to stem the tide of Beijing’s losing momentum.

The new aggressive tactics in the region especially in the South China Sea have backfired on Beijing’s long term aims for the region, as they have pushed regional players to scramble for external defence and deterrence support.

The enhanced security affirmation of Manila-Washington, reinforced by a string of other bilateral and multilateral security engagements which are formed out of common fear and threat of Beijing’s unchecked military aggression, remain a clear and effective message of regional resilience and willingness to push back against China’s free reign in the region.

While regional players have always maintained their close economic ties and preferred official neutrality in their approaches with Beijing, security and survival concerns have now regained their contextual importance, driven by new realities played out and in changing internal public concerns and demands. For Malaysia, it needs to join the growing regional awareness and concerns and urgently reevaluate its current economic direction that is overwhelmingly Beijing reliant and the ensuing foreign policy that is still trapped under China’s orbit. This has resulted in the country’s stalled hard power defensive capacity and maneuvering room, being left out of the urgently needed deeper Western counterbalance support.

Japan unveiled guidelines for a new program to strengthen the militaries of like-minded countries by providing “official security assistance”. This is yet another pragmatic, and realistic realisation of the real threat setting on the ground, where Tokyo now faces its worst security threat setting since WWII, facing a three pronged threat from Beijing, Pyongyang and Moscow.

This move that breaks with its previous policy of avoiding the use of development aid for military purposes other than disaster relief, will strengthen regional security bulwark and capabilities with Beijing in mind. This will also bolster the much needed security and defence needs of the intended recipients, and to bridge the capacity gap they now face in dealing with Beijing’s military moves and projections in the region.

The new OSA framework as announced in the revised National Security Strategy (NSS), will initially provide equipment, supplies and infrastructure development assistance to partner countries in the form of grants to reinforce what Tokyo describes as the region’s “comprehensive defense architecture.” Malaysia is among those considered under this, and Kuala Lumpur stands to gain the most in this initiative, and will need to be wise and urgent to grab this opening in reinforcing its deterrence option, apart from deepening its Western pivot. Tokyo-Kuala Lumpur ties have been traditionally economic and socio-cultural in nature, with limited historical openings for security and defence.

This OSA initiative will only strengthen the overall bilateral ties and reinforce one another’s strategic complement and balancing support in providing the needed resources and strength to one another. Tokyo will need Malaysia’s continuous assurances and support in critical industries including the semiconductor and high impact technologies, and rare earths resources crucial for the country’s long term economic survival, including supply chain resilience and food security. Malaysia will need Japan’s high technological inflow of investments and maintenance of capital and technology transfer, where joint security support and complement now will further deepen the holistic and integrated nature of the decades old trust and interdependence between both nations.

The OSA being an expansion of Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) – one of the world’s largest foreign aid programs, is a much needs move by Tokyo to pivot away from its strict nonmilitary approach to ties with its neighbors and looks to realize its vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).

While the official objectives of the OSA program will focus on improving the capabilities of regional militaries to conduct surveillance of territorial waters and airspace, humanitarian assistance as well as disaster response activities, it will act as a needed stop gap measure in improving the security loopholes of the most vulnerable players in the region, and contributes towards a bigger Japanese regional intent of peacebuilding and coalition building that will reassure Tokyo’s concerns and build a trust based arch of dependable partners.

Japan’s march toward a more robust and proactive defense posture points to Tokyo’s growing recognition that it needs a full spectrum of an integrated state deterrence and capabilities to break from its three-pronged threat trap setting.

The OSA, the various Reciprocal Access Agreements (RAA) by Tokyo, the renewed Manila-Washington security pact, rejuvenated security ties of Seoul-Tokyo, refreshed AUKUS and Quad, and other growing security arrangements in the region provide the expanded capacity and bulwark of integrated defence and deterrence that are no longer confined to strategic ambiguity. This provides a clear messaging intent directed towards primarily Beijing but also to Pyongyang and Moscow that as much as the current order of the Western led rules-based economic and international trade platforms will be challenged by rising autocratic alliances and efforts, ultimate security and survival concerns still provide the cohesive factor in binding the third parties together. In the scramble for both sides of the ideological divide to dictate the policy option and to gain new alliances and partners in their pursuits, short term returns often dilute the efficacy of their returns.

These regional responses with Western support are needed to show to the autocratic forces and Beijing that they are not allowed to be given the continuous free hand in disobeying international law and in applying different carrot and stick measures and selective adherence to their own whims and fancy. The dwindling efficacy of conflict prevention mechanisms including various confidence building measures and diplomatic maneuvers have failed to slow or to halt the actions of Beijing and Pyongyang, further weakening the argument that a response that is China appeasing will be the best approach to build shared trust and interdependence.

A stronger power will pounce on the imbalanced power gap and vulnerability, and to capitalise on the cracks in the disjointed power parity fulcrum. To prevent a conflict, a deterrence capacity that is compelling is crucial in raising the costs of the other party to initiate the first strike and to reduce the depth and severity of the criticality and potentiality of the aggressor in using hard power measures to achieve its aim.

Seemingly neutral countries seem to have greater buy-in for the short term economic and financial gains, along with the enticement of fast gains and internal public support that will assure regime security. However, history has proven that in the long term battle between democracy and autocracy, the former enjoys the upper hand based on the long term returns of expected consistency and stability in security, survival and economic resilience and sustainability based on proven returns of the moral high road of a rules-based setting and adherence to civilisational values of respecting and preserving human rights and dignity, democracy and freedom. Malaysia must regain its footing and adhere to this value-based drive, for the fruits of the long term returns trump any short term gains that have blinded and tied the policy options of many countries.

Collins Chong Yew Keat

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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