Why America and the West remain critical for Indo -Pacific security

The US meanwhile, remains resilient in its future demographic and economic growth projection and stability, alongside the prospects of India. The so-called rise of China is now reversing, and the perceived decline of the US and the West is not happening.

Collins Chong Yew Keat Mar 09, 2024
Representational Photo

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim spoke up in defence of ties with China and denounced the “China-phobia” sentiment among the West and the pressure to take sides in recent weeks and most recently in Australia during the Australia-ASEAN Summit.

The call for a persistent stance against any rules-violating behaviours is rooted in universal adherence to a rules-based order and common respect for international law. In standing up against aggressions and rules-violating behaviours, this does not translate into efforts by one power to contain another. It is to ensure that the rules apply equally to all players and powers, and not kowtowing to the mantra of might is right.

The West and Washington have called for the preservation of the rules-based order and a free and open Indo-Pacific based on a free and stable maritime route and freedom of navigation in international waters and in respecting countries’ maritime rights under international law and UNCLOS.

This is critical in maintaining the freedom for passageways and in ensuring trade and supply chain security, but most importantly the rights of nations to have their interests, security and sovereignty protected with the right trust and conviction of being protected under the international law.

When the West and Washington and other like-minded regional players and allies stand up for these established norms and call out Beijing’s actions and behaviours, this is not a prejudicial move or an effort to contain China in the so-called China-phobia approach.

The call to support the move to preserve the rules-based order is not meant to push countries or to dictate a country’s foreign policy-making but is a current and future necessity and reality-based factor in preserving peace, sovereignty and stability.

Washington created the rules-based order since the end of WWII and has maintained and preserved this system with both economic and military superiority which has kept the world safe, secure and peaceful to a large extent. The peace dividend enjoyed has now been easily forgotten and bypassed, succumbing to the sustained narrative denouncing the West and the US. This peace dividend is now at risk of crumbling under the weight of autocracy and rules violating behaviours and the West's call for greater efforts and criticality in standing up for the global order of rules, laws and norms is not divisive nor intrusive.

Protecting maritime rights in South China Sea

Recent aggressions in the South China Sea especially against Philippine vessels remain a huge cause of concern, and Beijing continued to bolster its presence with its maritime militia fleet around key and contested features in the sea grew by 35 per cent last year, according to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

Malaysia’s conventional and decades-old approach to the South China Sea conflict in using quiet and backdoor diplomacy is once again in the limelight with the repeated incursions and grey zone operations by Beijing over the years, the latest on February 17 where the China Coast Guard 5403 vessel sailed off the coast of Malaysia.

According to SeaLight, a Stanford University project focused on grey zone activities in the South China Sea, it set off a period of intrusive patrolling into Malaysia’s oil and gas fields and the patrol is still ongoing.

Past incidents including the West Capella incident have seen Malaysia’s intent to prevent an escalatory aftermath, and even chastising Washington’s intent to offer support.

Beijing claims about 95 per cent of the 3.5 million-square-kilometre South China Sea, covering fishery-rich waters that Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines also claim.

Malaysia’s traditionally subdued stance reflects the growing divide in ASEAN in responding to this aggression, and the Chinese economic dependence remains a key factor for the nation and in large parts of the region.

The biggest chunk of Malaysia’s economic asset is from the fossil fuel sector in the oil and gas deposit in the South China Sea, and it needs to be firm and strategic in escaping the dogma of China's economic dependence to ensure that its interests and sovereignty are protected in the sea.

Malaysia’s approach in the South China Sea dispute, where the reserves of the oil and gas are the main lifeline of the country’s economy has been subdued and is based on quiet and backdoor diplomacy to avoid risking the overall ties with Beijing.

Malaysia will need to stand up to the protection of the rules-based order based on international law and norms and to ensure free and open navigation and a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

As a maritime trading nation where the economic survival depends overwhelmingly on maritime trade, Malaysia and the region cannot afford to paraphrase or repackage the notion of a free, open,  and rules-based regional order according to different non-Western interpretations, in justifying the call for the exclusion of Western power presence or “interference” in this region. 

Trap of neutrality and its contradictions

Having a persistent stance on being neutral and non-aligned but overemphasis on policy protection for certain countries while denouncing the so-called interference by other powers in the region also do not reflect the right level of confidence and trust in the capacity, intent and stability of the country’s future response and readiness in economic, security and defence orientations.

For years, Malaysia tried to protect the importance of its economy and dependence on China but at the same time yearned to balance and get security and defence support from the West. This model is obsolete and backfiring.

Finland has ditched its decades-long neutrality model and has joined NATO, as it realises the real threats facing its future. As recently as today, Sweden did the same, jettisoning its decades-long stance of neutrality and officially becoming a NATO member.

Malaysia must not be trapped by its ingrained neutrality and non-alignment approach and the overdependence on China on trade and economy, as these will create long-term risks to its economic and security fundamentals.

Foreign policy affiliations have been very much moulded under the dogma of the non-aligned approach, but deeper Chinese overdependence on trade and investments has been a major part of Malaysia’s affiliations and policy adjustments towards the West and China.

New economic and security direction

The future-driven approach must be based on a values-based model in transitioning to a high-value chain of economic drivers pillared on a resilient supply chain, labour standards, human rights protection and trust-based economic and expertise transfer with real impact on the ground to the nation and the people.

The West brings and champions this values-based model, where the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and other security frameworks serve as the guardrail in defending the sanctity of humanistic and principle-driven economic and trade driver, focusing on the pillars of good governance, rule of law, freedom and democracy and a rules-based order.

Washington and its allies including Japan and Australia call for a free and open Indo-Pacific in a rules-based order that is same for all. China or other states cannot play by different sets of rules in international law and norms in portraying might is right at the expense of others.

Peace and stability stem from unyielding adherence and devotion to the rules-based order by all players, and the actions of the West and Washington in upholding this order serve as the biggest stabilising factor in ensuring that regional and global peace and stability are observed, where all nations play by the same rules on land and in the sea.

The efforts by Washington and its allies in the region are to ensure that regional players have the capacity and support to protect their interests and uphold a free and open international maritime passageway, which is the most pertinent and critical lifeline for global trade and lives and stakes of nations and the people.

These actions and the subsequent deterrent actions to prevent Beijing from continuing its hard-power coercive intimidation and economic and grey-zone tools against regional claimants in the South China Sea and other contested domains have been used as effective messaging drives by a growing segment in the region in portraying the West as the instigators with its “provocations”.

Washington retains regional dominance

The latest economic data projection shows that China is facing its economic decline, alongside internal demographic and development crises from the Country Garden debt crisis to the exodus of top firms from the country.

The US meanwhile, remains resilient in its future demographic and economic growth projection and stability, alongside the prospects of India. The so-called rise of China is now reversing, and the perceived decline of the US and the West is not happening.

China has been projected to overtake the US in being the world’s biggest economy far too frequently in the past decade but this is far from materialising. Experts have now argued based on projections and data that this might not ever happen at all.

Washington’s supremacy in various aspects of high technology, space dominance, unrivalled military superiority, resilience and prospects for internal growth in demographic capacity, resources, energy and scientific domains will change the power structure and equation.

The power equation for the past three decades has not altered much, where the overall power affirmation and volume still lie in the West and other non-China players in the region. The so-called rise of the rest, or the notion of multipolarity in the new power structure, and the perceived dominance of the Global South, are not sufficient to unseat Washington as the incumbent power stabiliser of the global order, despite the persistent counter-narratives.

America and the West remain the guardians and guardrails of this pillar.

(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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