By Collins Chong Yew Keat

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia-Malaysia will need more strategic long term calculations on its future economic and geopolitical interests, and start to implement steps to pivot away from overreliance on one economic superpower in safeguarding its short term needs.

This will make the country even more vulnerable in long term strategic returns, especially in seeing the uncertainties in China’s perceived durability in its economic and hard power resilience.

The visit to China by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is an apt platform for Malaysia to send a message that while it cherishes the long historical rapport and the ever critical economic interdependence, it will also stand firm with conviction on its value-based policy approach and adherence to global norms and a rules-based order.

Malaysia will need to be seen at the global level to have such a future driven conviction and policy approach in line with the Madani concept and the reform-based new leadership orientations.

A review of our approach is critical,  especially in safeguarding our sovereignty, survival and national interests against the growing Chinese bellicosity and coercive tactics in the South China Sea.

This remains critical not only for our national sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also concerns the security of our oil and gas assets which make up the bulk of our main economic contributor, with our economic survival and the livelihoods of millions at stake.

The rich marine resources and the livelihood of the local fishermen are also at stake, adding to the criticality of the issue that will need the wise and bold commitment by the current leadership to finally have the courage and strategic realization to confront this decades-old dilemma with the interests of the country in mind, and in line with a Malaysia First concept.

For years, Malaysia has been relying on quiet and backdoor diplomacy in toning down tensions and has been dependent on existing conflict prevention mechanisms in hoping for Beijing’s own self restraint, and has been reluctant to openly cause frictions and conflicts in taking a harsher and open response as increasingly practised by Manila and Hanoi.

Our deterrence capacity is hapless against the might of Beijing’s military build-up and yet we are reluctant to shift our foreign policy approach and has been dangerously slow and lagging behind as compared to our neighbouring players in deriving the best strategic maneuver moving forward in facing the threats in South China Sea, in how best to deal with an increasing erratic and intimidating hard power tactic of Beijing and in facing the potential fall-out of a full scale conflict in SCS or in Taiwan.

Reliance on the goodwill of Beijing and hoping for its own self restraint through consultative and backdoor engagement, and refraining from openly chastising its behaviours in fear of inciting its wrath and economic retaliation, have all not yielded the desired outcome.

For decades, we have been dangerously reliant on Chinese easy credit and source of investment and capital transfer, with no light at the end of the tunnel. This is further exacerbated by the renewed commitment by Anwar in the Boao Forum of desiring more BRI extension of investments and projects, with no strategic and comprehensive review done on the impact of these on our national security, environmental concerns and direct economic repercussions on the people.

Malaysia has been complacent, and falling deeper into the abyss of overdependence on Beijing’s economic and financial lifelines, especially now in our scramble for economic recovery support in imploring for more Beijing’s economic investment and focus in our country, despite the array of controversial and already ingrained footprint in the country in various mega projects under BRI.

Questionable impact on the local economy, employment opportunities and other expected spillover effects has also created a serious need to relook at the mega ventures that cost billions of ringgit but seem to suit Beijing’s geopolitical agenda in the region more than the returns to Malaysia’s long term economic impact.

There is no single major review or push to evaluate the threat or impact of these elements of Chinese presence, influence and grip on our economy and policy options and responses.There is similarly no review on whether our trapped foreign policy dogma of decades of remaining neutral but overwhelmingly and hypocritically  seen as China centric, actually brings the desired objective of preserving our interests and national security.

From rare earths cultivation to deeper Beijing’s pursuit on our critical sectors including digital domain of 5G and AI and our digital economy as well as key resource sectors including semiconductors and advanced infrastructure and food security, Malaysia needs to be in a bold position to review the underlying cost benefit calculations and to be strategic and forward-looking in detaching itself from the need for urgent short term and easy stop gap measure of relying on China’s financial and capital might and market reliance.

Our perceived efforts to diversify our economic reliance on Beijing and to increase the number of baskets for our eggs have failed to materialize, as seen in the still clueless strategic orientation of our external trade that has still predominantly relied on Beijing as the easiest way out for our economic dilemma.

Our economic approach in seeing Beijing has been fixated by the expectations that it will maintain its regional economic might and power resilience, where we have no choice but to continue to bandwagon with a conception of a  persistently rising China and an inevitable decline of the West.

This is a wrong perception, and a risky one, as we continue to place our overwhelming bet on a Chinese led regional powerhouse and it has made Malaysia more complacent and ignorant on the need to be strategic and flexible in the rigidity of our foreign policy.

Malaysia is undergoing an economic setting transformation in focusing more on digital and green economy, with emphasis on high technological sector and digital technology, both of which where Beijing is poised to play a much bigger role in grabbing the early opportunity to establish the foundational footprint.

For now, continuous yearning for Chinese capital, labour and technology has resulted in low scale economic spillover impact, and a lingering issue of missing out on principle-laden socio-economic emphasis on human rights, labour standards, technology transfer, inclusivity and equality in opportunities, environmental protection and social responsibilities, community upbringing and value based economic progressive effects.

The long term economic structural adjustment will need these new value-based and moral high ground approaches, aligning with global responsibilities.

The expansion of these presence in the country risks further engulfment of our options and to fall deeper into the overreliance on China as our sole economic saviour.

This will only invite falling deeper into the economic abyss of being beholden to Beijing’s potential economic blackmailing in favour of greater superseding security and geopolitical interests in the region, particularly the South China Sea and the subsequent implicating factors that will affect Beijing’s intent for Taiwan reunification.

For Beijing, it would seek to further expand its geostrategic pursuit in the region, by relying on the economic grip it still possesses over the region and on Malaysia to seek greater returns on its medium term security and geopolitical aims.

In facing its dwindling economic prospect, a slowing internal capacity and growing pressure from the US led embargo on key technologies, Beijing seeks to channel its resources and focus on countries where it will be easier to further expand its grip, including Malaysia.

Squeezed now by Washington’s move to isolate its critical industry capacity in chips and semiconductors, Beijing is reorienting its moves and expanding its strategic net by including Malaysia and the region on its survival radar.

Malaysia risks being used as a convenient second front to advance Beijing agenda in escaping from the crunching pressure and embargo by the West, in expanding its greater leeway and escape by setting up new bases of growth and development in the fields that will be crucial for Beijing to develop in parallel and untouched by the efforts of the West to impose punishment on it based on its past behaviours of not adhering to economic norms and the international law.

 By having this escape and the room to grow, it remains relatively unscatched and having no international normative oversight or pressures, in enabling Beijing to continue these areas that are needed for its geostrategic returns.

Beijing will need Malaysia to continue with its neutral approach, as Beijing is keen to expel any notion and pursuit of the West to establish greater security foothold in the region, especially in the South China Sea as the West gained momentum in recent years with new commitment shown by Manila and increasingly Singapore and Indonesia.

For as long as Beijing is able to rein in Malaysia through a combination of economic tools and hard power measures, its South China Sea ambition can be further supported, with lesser opening for the US to reinforce its responsive and deterring capacity.

We will risk getting the worst out of our current China pander and the unwillingness to accept greater Western overtures, as we will be exposed to a potentially disastrous economic fallout from a now declining China in internal economic resilience and at the same time, being exposed to a more vulnerable security climate in which a time trapped China with a decline in internal capacity and under pressure and containment efforts from the West will be potentially be compelled to exercise greater bellicose and erratic behaviour in the region and in Taiwan.

We remain hapless in our defence and deterrence capacity by then, in which we have yet to fully recognize the reality and urgency of the security reality and happenings on the ground in South China Sea, unlike our much more strategic, realistic and agile neighbours especially Singapore and the Philippines.

Malaysia needs to play our strategic card well and wisely, in countering the current situation where Beijing is using its grip on our economic dependence and our current neutrality trap well to its own geopolitical advantage.

The South China Sea remains critical for Beijing’s power expansion agenda and in denying Western presence and challenge to its military build-up and claims on the territories, and Beijing is relying on our self trap of subdued and hapless response, and our inability and unwillingness to align and solicit deeper Western deterrence capacity, as a needed advantage for Beijing to reinforce its pursuit and effectiveness of its power projection measures in the region.

Malaysia has always viewed Beijing’s ambition and its intent there as a threat, but remains trapped and tied in public responses. This is firstly due to the inability to do so because it will risk Malaysia’s economic survival if Beijing acts to retaliate.

Secondly, Malaysia’s own hapless deterrence capacity further diminishes its deterrence capacity in standing up against Beijing’s coercive and intimidating tactics of grey zone activities and in maintaining an integrated and omnipresence in the South China Sea, through various tools and strategies including utilization of its Coast Guard and civilian fishing vessels.

For us, unless and until we have the needed public awareness and willingness to call for reasonable engagement and action, we will remain trapped under this dogma of fear, submission and unwillingness to create new future-led solutions and in facing the truth and reality on the ground.  The outcome of this Sino-US rivalry with shifting geopolitical architecture is far from sealed.

It is easy to discredit and write off Washington’s future power resilience, and the Malaysians and the regional players might find themselves on the wrong footing at their own larger collective expense. It will be too late to be mired in the lost opportunities by then, where the fall-out from the potential full-blown conflict would change the dynamics of regional and global trust. Most importantly, the trust and balance of power will be permanently redrawn.

Xi will also want to use this as a useful platform and the visit by Anwar to show the West that Malaysia will still well be firmly under the grip of Beijing, and Beijing can conveniently shape the policy approach of Malaysia through different tools at its disposal, including economic grip and blackmailing and hard power measures, among many others, not including the expansion of soft power grip and influence buying and espionage activities.

We have always yearned for the expectations that a placated Beijing from our pandering and kowtowing measures all this while, will result in Beijing in toning down its rhetoric and actions that will infringe on our interests, but the outcome is clear that Beijing’s larger regional and global ambitions far thwart the efficacy of our placating efforts to Beijing.

We have always projected the need to separate the sensitive dispute and issue of the South China Sea in particular, apart from other controversial issues including Uighur and Taiwan, from the mainstream and larger bilateral relationship setting with China, and this has always been used as a convenient pretext in sweeping the sensitive issues under the carpet, on the basis of not wanting to harm our economic and cultural ties.

We need to reorient that approach, and to use this as a strategic factor, basis and precursor in shaping our overall holistic relationship level and priority with Beijing, in sending a clear and strong message to China that Malaysia will no longer be subdued to past approaches of generalizing the terms and structure of the ties based on economic realm and importance alone.

The expanded economic footprint in the country through the increased openings and platforms including on investments in key critical sectors particularly the digital domain and 5G, and on the recent developments on rare earths exploit will provide greater lethal risks on Malaysia’s medium and long term vulnerabilities and susceptibility on being beholden to Beijing’s chessboard maneuvering.

It also exposes the country to continuous risks of Beijing’s espionage campaign and surveillance activities in digital and other domains, integrated with soft power sway and measures in the country and the region including the media, as highlighted by various intelligence agencies including the FBI and UK’S GCHQ agency as well as in the latest Freedom House report on China’s Global Media Influence 2022.

In the latest Doublethink Lab on China Index report, it is reported that China maintains a strategy to influence politics, the media, academia, the military, and the economy in the countries where it has relationships until reaching a level of influence in all sectors of society, according  that analyzed data from 82 countries in nine regions last year.

Malaysia is in the top ten of the most influenced countries, in which the report highlighted Beijing’s attempts to extend its influence through manipulation of the media and academic interaction, as well as trying to coerce other nations to adopt foreign policy goals in its favor after their economies have become reliant on China.

The report also pointed out Asian countries including Malaysia are heavily affected by China in the fields of economy and technology, being part of Beijing’s objective to create a new world order under the “Chinese model”.

The index was also referenced in the “China’s Global Influence and Interference Activities” hearing recently at the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an independent US government agency.

Anwar needs to be wise and strategic enough not to fall into this trap and dogma deeper, and to be bold enough to firmly reassert our unyielding and non-negotiable stance on matters of regional and national sovereignty and security.

By being bold to change our years-long China centric approach, it will yield  a three-pronged impact. Firstly, it changes our policy options vis a vis China where we will have greater openings and options to play the card well and counter Beijing’s existing long held grip through our own internal advantage and having greater leverage and options to engage with the West deeper in a whole array of sectors, especially in security and defence.

Secondly, it will weaken the long held chain of regional command by Beijing, and will provide a compelling need for Beijing elites to reshape their regional ambitions and calculations, with more regional capacities to reshape region shared commitment in defending the rules-based order.

Thirdly, it will give Anwar the validation and legacy of seeing the bigger long term picture of greater returns in aligning with the changing regional realities, and that the shift from short term capital-led approach to a long term economic structure based on knowledge, value creation and meaningful transfer of technology and knowledge will be the way to go.

Anwar will be the first to be seen as the person who finally shapes the future economic and security direction of the country, to one that is universally embraced in nature and in upholding the moral high ground of a people first economic setting with national and global responsibilities to the environment, human rights and civilizational dignity.

Anwar will have to stand up to his credentials and unyielding stance of upholding human rights, freedom and democracy. He has built his track record on such values and principles.

These are equally embedded in his Madani concept and this will be the best platform to show to the region and the world that he and the country are indeed serious, transformational and independent  in the approach to shape a new Malaysia and a region that is capable of shaping their own future direction.

*Collins Chong Yew Keat is with Universiti Malaya, focuses on internationalisation and strategic management.*