By Alan Ting

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia: Recent disturbing developments are putting the Malaysia-US relationship in the harshest possible light, undermining security and diplomatic efforts in keeping the South China Sea (SCS) an area of free navigation while solidifying China's control in what was formerly a key US ally in the region.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's announcement that the country will formally apply for membership in the BRICS grouping, curiously timed for Chinese Premier Li Qiang's visit last week, has deep ramifications. Anwar said the country’s "geographical position is a key factor as Malaysia’s potential membership in BRICS holds strategic importance due to its location along the Malacca Strait, an important shipping route linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans", in an interview with the Shanghai-based news outlet Guancha ahead of the visit.
The joint statement issued at the conclusion of the visit was even more ominous: "The two countries agreed to support efforts to preserve Southeast Asia as a region free from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, while contributing to global efforts on disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, in line with the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ)."
The announcement on BRICS membership, a grouping that includes three major US adversaries namely China, Russia and Iran, and toeing the Chinese line on a completely empty and ineffective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea while playing up SEANWFZ, which in this case is directed at the AUKUS nuclear submarine partnership involving Australia, the UK and US, signals in the clearest possible terms that Malaysia is decidedly in the Chinese sphere of influence, having adopted the very same talking points that China wishes to impose on other SCS claimants.
While Malaysia has repeatedly voiced concerns over AUKUS, citing that very same SEANWFZ treaty, it has refused to say a word against the patrols of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines operated by Chine's People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) which use the waters of the SCS as a bastion, not only making the area a potential target in the case of a major conflict but also raising a range of environmental and safety concerns.
Waning US influence 
The Malaysia-US relationship has been a long standing one dating back to August 31, 1957 when then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sent a letter recognising the newly independent country to its first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, setting the stage for a decades long close relationship that weathered the Cold War and prospered into the early 2010's.
But starting with the scandal ridden administration of Najib Razak, Beijing found its opening, signing unfavourable and corrupt deals with the most high profile being the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) a railway project that has resulted in the destruction of numerous environmentally sensitive area, the displacement of poor and vulnerable populations and landing the country in heavy debt while offering little in the way of job creation or basic utility.
Since then US influence has seen a steady decline with successive Malaysian administrations having little interest in foreign relations till Anwar was sworn in as the tenth Prime Minister of Malaysia on 24 November 2022. Anwar at first took the usual line of being a friend and trading partner of all countries, with the exception of Israel which Malaysia has no diplomatic relations with.
However since the tragic events of 7 October 2023, Anwar has taken a decidedly anti-Western and especially anti-US line with regards to the on-going conflict in Gaza, taking every opportunity to condemn the US support of Israel while emphasising his close and personal relationship with the leadership of Hamas, a group listed by the US as a terrorist organisation.
These actions have irked the US, with the country increasingly scrutinising the Malaysia's role in the trafficking of Russian and Iranian oil and gas products while acting as a base to launder Chinese products into the global market particularly electric vehicles (EV) and solar panels, prompting the US to send an ill-received delegation led by the US Treasury Department undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Brian Nelson.
"US representatives coming to this country should not act arrogantly to threaten Malaysia with unilateral restrictions on individuals or entities in Malaysia," Hassan Abdul Karim, a member of parliament from Anwar's PKR party said following the visit while Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution said Malaysia will not recognise any unilateral sanctions.

"US representatives coming to this country should not act arrogantly to threaten Malaysia with unilateral restrictions on individuals or entities in Malaysia,"

Quote by Hassan Abdul Karim, a member of parliament.
Meanwhile Collins Chong Yew Keat is a Universiti Malaya foreign affairs and security strategist. noted that Western economic rivals to China are having difficulty in competing in a rapidly changing geopolitical order which has lost touch with traditional allies like Malaysia: "Current or future Western overtures including IPEF and other future defence friend-shoring arenas, which emphasise on long term values-based model and approach of support and development might not appeal that much to the current urgent needs and demands of the country and other non-Western powers."
Clueless diplomats

While Malaysia has been the destination of several distinguished ambassadors who have shored up bilateral ties even during challenging moments, the current ambassador Edgard Kagan has failed to endear himself to members of the Malaysian government. While in the past it was understood that China is the foremost challenge in the Malaysia-US relationship, Kagan has instead sought to direct the country's focus towards Russia, Iran and Gaza but has found no traction.

Malaysia is certainly uninterested in either the Ukraine conflict or Iran's supposed role as an agent of destabilisation in the Middle East. It is China that looms large but in the absence of clear and coherent US policy and effective engagement has resulted in the country resigning itself to inevitable becoming a satellite state under Beijing's thumb. It has not helped that the US has heavily pressed Malaysia especially on Hamas, with Wisma Putra (Foreign Affairs Ministry) having received three démarche notes for Malaysia's reluctance to consider Hamas as a terrorist group.

"They are tone deaf. They are not not interested in issues that Malaysia prioritises. What we want are security and trade assurances not threats over our position on Gaza or trade with other countries. We are looking at security in the SCS. We are worried over the increasing influence of China that is making it impossible to speak out over our interests in the area. The real problems are here not in Ukraine or Gaza,"

Quote by an official who wished to remain anonymous remarked.
The way forward
While the situation may seem dire, changing course is not an impossible task. With China's overt pressure and aggression against fellow ASEAN member state Philippines, other SCS claimants have no illusions about what will come should the US disengage from the region. Not only would these countries be completely cut off from the area, impacting their access to the rich fisheries and hydrocarbon deposits of the SCS, they also risk losing trade routes and face China's domination of their own economies.
Security partnerships are the single most important carrot that the US can offer ASEAN states and especially Malaysia. Effective messaging is needed to demonstrate to the country that freedom of navigation exercises, armed patrols and AUKUS will form a bulwark against China's encroachments in the area. Making sure this is understood by not only the government but the people will smoothen the way for greater cooperation even to the extent of basing key strategic assets in the area which can count on Malaysian post facilities for maintenance and resupply, especially in East Malaysia.
Intensified and coordinated efforts are needed to raise awareness over how China leverages its vast resources in the information space to shape the narrative in Malaysia, including masking its true intentions in the SCS. Instead of allowing criticism of China to be snuffed out, greater efforts are needed to support freedom of media in Malaysia to raise issues of concern whether they be violations of territorial by China's maritime militia or illegal fishing and sand mining which get little to no attention. This has already been the case with China's Uyghurs, with any criticism over the persecuted group being conspicuously absent despite Malaysia having once been a strong proponent on the issue.
There have to be strong government-to-government relations with the US being willing to reassure Malaysia that despite differences, the country is not only carrying a stick but can offer safeguards and guarantees against China's economic pressure, whether in the form of market access or tariff exemptions and favorable trade arrangements, something that will become more important in coming years considering Malaysia's position as a major rare earth supplier and the host of the only non-Chinese controlled rare earth operation in the world and as a key player in the global semi-conductor chain.
Allowing China to dominate the narrative has resulted in this bid for BRICS membership, but effective diplomacy can turn this around. Indonesia had previously announced a membership bid but later withdrew this after realising that BRICS would not lead to greater emancipation and international participation but would put it in a firm disadvantage buy joining a bloc where China is a dominant power and is in a position to exert significant leverage. Malaysia, which faces very similar issues, could easily be convinced to reconsider its position on BRICS.