Malaysia's Anwar Tilts to China

As war in Gaza wears on, PM displays growing distrust of US

Dennis Ignatius | 30 June 2024
No image

Increasingly distrustful of American foreign policy, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim appears to be looking to China to “provide checks and balances.” In a series of recent media interviews, Anwar heaped effusive praise on President Xi Jinping, calling the Chinese president an “outstanding leader” and describing China as an important strategic partner for Malaysia. Observers also note that Anwar appears to have a close personal affinity for Xi and feels comfortable aligning Malaysia more closely with Xi’s leadership in global affairs.

At the same time, Anwar, once the darling of Washington, has become more strident in his criticism of America and the West. In not so many words, he has accused the US of complicity in the Gaza genocide, reached out to Hamas leaders in defiance of the US, criticized US-imposed sanctions against Iran, and dismissed American allegations. In a further sign of his unhappiness with the US-dominated global order, Anwar announced that Malaysia would seek membership in the BRICS grouping of emerging economies, a move that will invariably put Malaysia closer to countries like China, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, all of which have become increasingly wary of American political and economic dominance in world affairs.

Closer to home, Anwar has also forcefully dismissed Washington’s “incessant propaganda” that China is a threat to regional peace and stability, insisting that the region has no reason to fear China. Even on the hot-button issue of China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, he has been adamant that ASEAN should be given the time and space to work out its differences with China without outside [read American] interference. He has also made no secret of his view that the Philippines’ policy of confronting China over conflicting territorial claims is counterproductive and ultimately unsustainable.

Some observers see the Malaysian approach as simply a recognition of current geopolitical realities. China is, after all, a rapidly rising superpower right on Malaysia’s doorstep. Malaysia’s prosperity is heavily dependent on China – China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner, its biggest source of foreign investment, and a key infrastructure partner. Malaysia’s plantation and tourism sectors are also heavily dependent on China. In short, China is simply too big, too profitable, and too important to antagonize.

It doesn’t help too that there are few other realistic options open to small countries like Malaysia. The US, of course, wants to see a more robust regional response to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and is hoping to build a regional security consensus to challenge China. But that is unlikely to happen given that the US is increasingly seen as an unreliable and unpredictable ally.

Deep ideological differences within the US body politic have eroded consensus on foreign policy. Each change in administration has brought with it dramatic shifts in US policy. President Obama’s Pivot to Asia along with his Transpacific Partnership was quickly abandoned by President Trump. When President Biden replaced Trump, American policy shifted again with the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership initiative, the AUKUS pact, and a more hawkish response to China. If Donald Trump regains the presidency in November, US Pacific strategy could shift yet again; countries which have hitched their wagon to the US – like the Philippines – could well find themselves up a creek without a paddle.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Anwar’s pivot to China will be reciprocated to the same degree. There was some disappointment that Xi himself – for all the praise and adulation showered upon him – did not take up the invitation to visit Kuala Lumpur in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations, though Premier Li Qiang gave the event some significance. Anwar himself has visited China twice since coming to power in November 2022, and a third visit is rumored to be on the cards.

Observers also note that Anwar’s deferential position hasn’t stopped China from continuing to intrude into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and harassing Malaysian fishermen and exploration vessels. Malaysia, like other ASEAN countries, keeps hoping that a code of conduct can be worked out with China, but after more than two decades of negotiations, it is clear that China has no interest in any framework that would limit its ability to pursue its claims. In the meantime, China has embarked on a massive military buildup in the South China Sea that must surely worry ASEAN capitals, though they may be loath to admit it.

The Philippines' experience with China is also instructive. Under former President Duterte, the Philippines bent over backwards to appease China. Duterte even distanced himself from a landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that found China’s claims of historic rights within the nine-dash line, which Beijing uses to demarcate its claims in the South China Sea, were without legal foundation and that Beijing’s activities within the Philippines’ two-hundred-nautical-mile EEZ infringed on Manila’s sovereign rights. Appeasement, however, didn’t stop China from aggressively taking control of territory claimed by Manila. Indeed, the Philippines could soon find its tenuous hold on the Second Thomas Shoal in jeopardy given recent Chinese moves in the area.

Nevertheless, for now at least, the benefits of close relations with China far outweigh future challenges to Malaysia’s sovereignty. Anwar’s pivot to China has been well received, especially within the business community, while his criticism of Washington and his move to join the BRICS grouping has gone down well amongst the majority Malay-Muslim voting bloc who are incensed with US support for Israel.

For China, it is, of course, a significant diplomatic coup. As Premier Li Qiang noted during his visit to Malaysia earlier this month, “China-Malaysia ties are at the forefront among relations between regional countries, and have set a benchmark and an example.” The big question now is how Washington will react to Anwar’s pivot to China.

Dennis Ignatius is a former Malaysian ambassador. 

This article was originally published on Asia Sentinel.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.