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Sat. January 28, 2023
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Malaysia’s Foreign Policy Trap and China’s Fear
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Malaysia recently announced the plan to recruit language and cultural attaches for Malaysian missions around the world, in an apparent mismatched priority and urgency for its foreign policy orientation. Defended as the pursuit for the promotion of its national language and cultural persuasive clout on the world stage, this move is seen as a strategic measure to put Malaysia on par with the soft power and cultural giants including South Korea and the West.

The quest to elevate Malaysia’s global standing and appreciation of its culture and heritage is not attainable overnight, it takes a calculated, strategic, and careful course of measures and strategies over many years to build on a resilient and self-sustaining venture that can generate respect, influence, and admiration by others. The move has garnered criticism, because of the far greater priority for economic rebuilding and in facing other foreign policy needs and threats.

The question remains that in its quest to raise global appeal and penetration of  cultural appreciation, does it have the audacity and conviction to stand up to foreign powers and admonish them for violating international rules and human rights and threatening the interests and sovereignty of the country? China looms large in this dichotomy.

For decades Malaysia has been the moral voice the world over in standing up to the rights and plight of the Palestinians in facing the abuses by Israel and in leading the voice of the developing world and the Muslim world, but it remains subdued in the issues of the Xinjiang human rights abuses and incursions by China on its territorial ground. Coercive actions on the South China Sea and the standoff that affects its interests and rights have been largely settled through backdoor diplomacy to preserve the ties and not want the issues to be prolonged that will harm the bilateral relations. All these further reinforced the perception and perspective from other regional and global players, especially China itself, that Malaysia remains weakened and will continue to be so, by the might of Beijing’s soft and hard power sways and grip.

Malaysia abstained from voting in the UN Human Rights Council in the decision to debate the recent report on Xinjiang’s human rights abuses, where eventually it gives a huge victory to Beijing in its pervasive efforts to halt the debate on the report, which it termed as another attempt by the West in falsely implicating Beijing. Key decision-making of this magnitude reflects yet again the continuation of Malaysia’s fear of Chinese reprisal and the impact on its economic lifelines and livelihoods of the vast majority of its people It also reveals the extent and impact of the Chinese grip, in which Malaysia still does not have a good answer for.

The recent report by Freedom House on the level of media sway and narrative shaping in China’s favor and interests, where its extensive grip on the nation’s national media and public discourse is a real cause for alarm, but alas and again, it is lost in public ignorance and apathy and worse still, government silence and inaction for fear of upsetting the apple cart. There are more examples and will undoubtedly be more in the future, with the same sad reality and truth of its state of affairs in effectively dealing with China.

This is an urgent issue that requires public discourse, involvement, and understanding the broader direction and goals that Malaysia is to undertake in facing its common future and threat in foreign policy and national interests’ survival. Stakes this high and the impact that is so pervasive require greater public awareness and involvement, which remain relatively low, more so being dictated by the extensive Chinese sway and narrative shaping.

The extensive grip by China on Malaysia’s economic sphere remains untouchable, which hampers its moral principle and conviction to stand its ground on key issues, especially regarding its survival and long-term interests.

This addictive reliance on China’s market, capital, and resources mask its long-term strategic planning, despite the assurances that it will continue to diversify its economic bets and credentials. For the sake of political needs and expedience, Kuala Lumpur remains subservient to this order. It faces no option but to provide an explanation by harping on the inevitability of China’s might and its role in shaping the economic progress of the nation, the region, and the world. This remains an easy answer and scapegoat for its current dilemma, pinning the blame on the tied hands and irrefutability of China being a dominant economic powerhouse.

Malaysia has always prided itself in its smart, wise, tactful and charming diplomatic maneuvres over the decades and in remaining neutral, peaceful, and friendly. However, at times, it has been dysfunctional and clueless regarding key events that implicate its interests and survival. What have been the real measures on the results and impact of its decades of being non-aligned and what are the short and long-term benefits derived? Will the long-term harm and vulnerabilities nullify the perceived gains and benefits?  Is Malaysia better off and more protected by this orientation? Are there real calculations and strategies to chart its unwavering policies and responses to different threats and in humanizing its foreign policy paths that will better synergize with the different needs and sometimes conflicting policies of its other ministries and agencies?

More questions and hard thoughts on the need to revamp its foreign policy spectrum remain, but priorities and urgencies should set the tone. Wisdom and clarity of visions are needed to identify future changing narratives and power influence and capacities of present powers. China’s present economic power will not necessarily translate to a lasting and resilient prospect in the future in other denominators. A power that is seemingly strong for now will not be necessarily so in the years or decades to come, based on shifting power measures and calculations. In short, China’s momentum or meteoric rise is not cast in stone, and America’s perceived decline and fading into oblivion are not inevitable. To what extent does Malaysia hedge its bet on its supposed diversification and will its already endemic dependence on China backfire in stronger implications soon? A friend in disguise and a wrong enemy for a target will lead to greater fallout in securing its survival and interests.

Instead of spending more money and resources on unneeded ventures that are non-urgent for now, Malaysia will be better off if the focus is channeled on beefing up its core priorities, the defense capacities in facing threats by both state and non-state players, and in effectively arming its diplomatic and strategic corps to better defend its interests and principles at the regional and global arena.

If the government is serious about elevating Malaysia’s status and persuasive profile, it must start at home, in defending its honor, interests and survival and make a clear stand on its principles and values.  This will reflect its soft power credentials and conviction, and principles of unyielding faith and audacity in its approach,  not kowtowing to threats, coercion or quid pro quo arrangements out of fear and submission.

This will win admiration and respect from its regional and global peers, and the nation will be respected for its consistency and audacity in its moral conviction and faith.


Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. He is a regular contributor in providing Op-eds and analytical articles for both local and international media on various contemporary global and regional issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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