Is China's tightening grip over Malaysia and region a threat to Western security order?

In this regard, both ASEAN and Malaysia seem to have lost their appeal to the West for a deeper security foothold, with Washington realising that the current situation of the region's pandering to Beijing makes it difficult for the US to establish rooted military alliances and placement of strategic anti-missile capacities, among others

Collins Chong Yew Keat Sep 10, 2022

Has Malaysia’s true essence of independence, recently celebrated in its 65th anniversary, been lost in the wave of ignorance, entrenched by the tightening grip of China? For more than six decades, Malaysia’s progress has been both the envy of many and a spent force to some. Autonomy of decision making in its foreign policy in securing its interests and sovereignty seems to be a distant reality, as Beijing continues to loom large in dictating Malaysia’s orientation of affairs and overtures of roles and purpose.  

Changes over the decades in Malaysia’s foreign policy orientation from being pro-West to non-alignment have produced mixed results in some parameters, and dwindling prospects in others. Current ingrained dependence on China reflects its vulnerability, creating a self-created political abyss from which Beijing is happy to do the rescue act. 

The acceptance and inflow of returns from BRI to RCEP have highlighted the addictive reliance on Chinese capital and market that provide political and socio-economic wins for Malaysia and the region. The economic benefits derived from the RCEP are deemed to be far greater than IPEF, where Washington continues to be admonished for the limited market offering as compared to its Chinese counterparts, yet all the while pressing discreetly for Washington to increase its support and aid to the region.

It masks Malaysia’s real potential and tools for future cultivation, limits its chips and cards and freezes its options to independently secure our long-term interests. The enticing lure of easy capital and relatively easy requirements for capital and resource inflow from Beijing, form the deep-rooted cycle of strategic dependence and increased engulfment of Chinese sway. Kuala Lumpur is trapped between a rock and a hard place, needing the critically vital market, trade and resources of China in shoring up its stagnating economy and in plugging the systemic hole of abuses and corruption, while facing increased security vulnerability as the unintended trade-off.  Rocky ties with China under different premierships in Malaysia have stabilised and taken to greater heights by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, keen to capitalise on Beijing's ease of credit and resources and in shoring up local economic competitiveness. 

Mahathir's anti-West stance

Once wary of Beijing's sway in local affairs, former prime minister and elder statesman Mahathir Mohammad has now encouraged a stronger pivot to China, accusing Washington and the West of provoking China over the Taiwan issue with constant provocative tactics, culminating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit. Mahathir Mohammed's consistent anti-West approach has been strategically capitalised on by Beijing in seizing upon the openings to continue the anti-West narrative and in amplifying China's cultural and economic sway over the region.

 Local sentiments have continuously shifted, with perceptions of China taking a differing turn based on racial lines. The predominant Malay community has increasingly been wary of Chinese influence and grip on Malaysia's economic and cultural spheres, further compounded by Beijing's bellicose actions of pushing the nation into a corner with the unprovoked violations of territorial rights. Beijing's hidden hands and sinister agenda remain a big concern with the Malay population segment.

Conversely, a positive perception of China remains ingrained by a majority of the Malaysian Chinese populace,  often equating criticisms of China as part of the West’s containment efforts.  The strong yearning to affiliate with Beijing's influence and power has resulted in dangerous overtures and blind acceptance of the narratives shaped by Beijing. For this demographic segment particularly, historical ties and cultural links are seen as the pretext for greater affiliation with mainland China and the vehicle to global power dominance. 

Arguments for closer Kuala Lumpur-Beijing ties are not confined to economic lifelines alone. The mere fact that China is here to stay geographically, while Washington remains a distant and unreliable partner, reflects both the fear and optimism faced by policymakers.  While neighbours might be permanent, a country is still at the full liberty to design its fence and front door in dealing with its neighbours. The current scenario reflects the inability and unwillingness of Kuala Lumpur in dictating how it creates new shifts in its dealing with Beijing.

Differences in two approaches

Sensing the prevailing sentiments and Malaysia’s tied hands, Beijing wisely capitalised on historical baggage and narrative on shared rich legacies and ties of both countries dating back centuries as another precursor for its cultural charm offensive. Past attempts and interactions by China since centuries ago are projected as peaceful and friendly, and highlight the vast differences with the West’s approach which is seen as intimidating, deceitful and exploitative because of the centuries of colonialism.

Facing greater economic vulnerability and pressure to meet internal political demands and wins, Kuala Lumpur finds it increasingly difficult to reimagine and realign its foreign affairs, especially in dealing with Beijing and the West. Western counterbalance measures, including AUKUS and increased Western military and economic overtures in the region and Indo-Pacific, have been discreetly welcomed but publicly chastised.

 Conformation to the regional and Chinese spectrum of regional order further reinforces Malaysia’s central approach. Chinese incursions into Malaysian airspace and other coercive measures have been met with subdued responses, with Kuala Lumpur choosing to rely on quiet diplomacy rather than public posturing. 

In this regard, both ASEAN and Malaysia seem to have lost their appeal to the West for a deeper security foothold, with Washington realising that the current situation of the region's pandering to Beijing makes it difficult for the US to establish rooted military alliances and placement of strategic anti-missile capacities, among others. Only Canberra remains resilient and bankable in the immediate region, and getting the buy-in from the regional players for QUAD’s expansion remains increasingly stymied by Beijing’s hardened grip.

Centrality, either as a nation or as a regional grouping, implies a continuous free hand for Beijing to dictate and shape regional security architecture to its own strategic calculations. And, Malaysia and other regional players remain unable to change the status quo without underlying Western support.

In deciphering the next orientation of facing China, four fundamental questions remain for Malaysia. Firstly, does the trust and faith put in China in preserving the close-knit dependency worth future volatility and vulnerability to the unknowns and future conflicts? Secondly, are the yet-to-be-proven credibility, staying power and effectiveness of the Chinese model of regional and global order worth the relentless pursuit and investment of Malaysia’s resources and reliance? Thirdly, will the assurances and enticing alternative system, economically and militarily, as championed by Beijing, be immune to the future resilience and sustainability of these unproven systems? 

Growing vulnerability to Beijing 

Finally, is Malaysia and the ASEAN region ready for transition to norms and principles of a rules-based order espoused by the West, which will mean a shift from conventional China-centric thinking with overreliance on its market and capital?

Domino effects seen in various countries at the receiving end of this new penetration of influence by Beijing, from port takeovers to political and media sway, serve as deterrents to embracing of Western counterbalancing acts. Policymakers remain trapped in this dichotomy, fully aware of the risks involved and the fate of the nation and the region, albeit having to fulfil short-term urgent needs of nation-building and economy-saving from the debt crisis it faces, worsened by the 1MDB financial saga. 

This will be at the expense of the long-term survival interests of both the nation and the region, where barring overwhelming reorientation of stances and effective long-term plan in dealing with China, a deeper fall into an endless spiral of vulnerability and entrapped prisoner’s dilemma remains inevitable.  

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at

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