Why Australia needs Malaysian support in the Indo-Pacific to counter China's assertiveness

Facing encroaching Chinese naval presence and power projections in the Pacific Island states on its eastern flank, and an assertive bid by Beijing to challenge the naval presence of Delhi and Washington in the Indian Ocean to its western flank, Australia is faced with its highest threat level in decades.

Collins Chong Yew Keat Aug 31, 2023
Australia and Malaysia

The visit by Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, who is also the defence minister, to Malaysia last week cemented strategic ties between the two nations that are underpinned by solid historical friendship.  The ingrained defence ties and mutual dependence on one another’s strategic assets remain a cornerstone of a robust bulwark of joint deterrence capacity and consolidation of integrated security postures in facing renewed challenges facing both nations in the region and beyond.

Canberra’s strategic presence in the country's security domain, including the importance of Rifle Company Butterworth and Operation Gateway, underscored the critical need to improve coordination, integration and interoperability capabilities in presenting both a strategic message to external threats and providing multiplier effects in safeguarding maritime security and upholding international law, particularly freedom of navigation and overflight and maritime domain awareness in adhering to the principles of UNCLOS.

Malaysia remains critical for Canberra because of its geostrategic location and in utilising existing Australian military assets and capacity in the country. The forces and assets in Butterworth provide a strategic advantage to Australia in having a closer point to the entrance of Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, providing a shorter connecting point to the Nicobar Islands chain and now having a presence in both the exit and entry points into the Indian Ocean from West Australia and in the tip of Strait of Malacca.

This also provides greater interoperability capacity with existing Quad allies especially India, and plays a stronger role with enhanced presence in critical chokepoints in the Strait of Malacca, complementing the advantage near to other two entry points to the Indian Ocean through the Lombok and Sunda Straits in which the near vicinity of the AUKUS base in Perth serves as a crucial advantage for Canberra and the West.

Malaysia a prime mover in ASEAN

Malaysia is seen as critical in terms of providing support bases for renewed presence in the South China Sea, including potential bases and docking support facilities for AUKUS submarines, and also in serving as a buffer zone against Beijing, together with Singapore and Indonesia.

Malaysia is seen as one of the prime movers of ASEAN, and Canberra will need Malaysia to ensure that ASEAN does not fall deeper into the orbit of China. It will need Kuala Lumpur at the very least to maintain its neutrality and ensure that the region’s security architecture remains free from the heightened influence of Beijing.

The message to Kuala Lumpur will be that Canberra is not the only country that will provide the defensive bulwark, as it will also represent the West as a whole, especially involving the US and the UK under the framework of AUKUS, Quad and FPDA.

Kuala Lumpur remains the oldest and one of the most trusted defence partners of Canberra, with the Australians having contributed to nation-building and the protection of its security and sovereignty in the early days of its formation. This factor will be highlighted in pushing for the argument that an old trusted friend in times of need during the early post-colonial era will be more dependable than risking the potential uncertainties of cosying up to a regional hegemonic power.

Beijing's growing assertiveness

Facing encroaching Chinese naval presence and power projections in the Pacific Island states on its eastern flank, and an assertive bid by Beijing to challenge the naval presence of Delhi and Washington in the Indian Ocean to its western flank, Australia is faced with its highest threat level in decades. The two AUKUS bases in Perth and Port Kembla in eastern Australia reflect the geostrategic imperatives in facing Beijing’s strong-arm moves.

Washington will continue to be the overarching security provider for Canberra, and plans for a new site for a hypersonic missile testing ground in the country further reaffirm the importance of Australia as the closest Western ally in the Indo-Pacific in deterring China.

AUKUS has been accused by many in the region, and Beijing itself, of destabilising the region’s security landscape and instigating a nuclear arms race. This is despite the fact that those vessels will be nuclear-powered and not nuclear-armed and that the region is already home to nuclear-powered and potentially nuclear-armed submarines of other external powers.

The various joint exercises as seen in the recent Malabar exercise of all four Quad nations in Australia and the tripartite joint interoperability exercise in the South China Sea involving more than  2,000 Australian and Philippine defence personnel and US. Marines are a way of ensuring that all parties play by the same rules in upholding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters.

The combined responses to uphold the rights of nations in the maritime domain, including AUKUS, are a natural response to Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and rules-violating behaviours that have caused regional unease. To label these moves as destabilising is misplaced when they are there to serve a much-needed stabilising and deterrent role to any norms-changing activities that will harm international equilibrium. 

Future benefits of reaping the returns of a potentially deeper affiliation and partnerships are greater than any perceived risks involved, and existing mechanisms including Quad, Aukus, Five Eyes, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, IPEF or the Blue Dot Network collectively provide a far larger sphere of stability, confidence and trust both in security and economic returns besides long-term value-based commonality. 

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at collins@um.edu.my)

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