When the AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) trilateral cooperation pact was announced, the news wasn’t all positive. Headlines about the diplomatic fallout with France and Malaysia’s concern about an ‘arms race’ in the region generated mixed reactions from observers. But what’s understated in the mainstream is what AUKUS represents: a shift in the West’s strategic outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Less of a cause of instability, AUKUS is a direct result of volatility of the region.
The risk of conflict or miscalculation in the South China Sea remains likely, if not more probable, post-pandemic. For one, Chinese provocations in the Indo-Pacific haven’t slowed, but increased, in 2021. This is evidenced by the record incursions into the Taiwanese air defence zone and even a rare intrusion into Malaysia’s airspace.
Against this backdrop, AUKUS signals the need for Malaysia to step up its role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the highly contested Indo-Pacific.
At present, Malaysia doesn’t have a clear policy framework on the Indo-Pacific construct, though this hasn’t stopped it from playing an active role on emerging security challenges in the region.
Malaysia’s approach to the Indo-Pacific is guided by the principle of ASEAN centrality, where ASEAN cohesion is deemed as the bedrock of regional security. This is why the emphasis of ASEAN centrality is critical to foster trust and solidarity amongst the bloc. But crucially, ASEAN is a convenient platform for Malaysia to participate in the Indo-Pacific discourse without being personally attributed or singled out.
Despite the division among its members, ASEAN will continue to be the primary security alliance for Southeast Asian nations, due to geography, proximity, historical ties, and strong people-to-people links. This makes ASEAN an influential bloc in the region that can reshape the outlook on the Indo-Pacific. But this requires leadership and a fundamental rethink of ASEAN’s role in the region.
The exclusion of Myanmar’s military junta from the recent ASEAN summit sets a good precedent of collective leadership demonstrated by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, which overcame institutional barriers within ASEAN. Malaysia’s Foreign Minister even went a step further to call for a policy change, showing a degree of rare but much-needed leadership in ASEAN during a crisis. By the same token, like-minded ASEAN countries need to band together and redouble their efforts to precipitate an ASEAN-led approach to the myriads of security challenges affecting the South China Sea.
Alongside the revival of the Quad, AUKUS indicates the fade of US hegemony in Southeast Asia. That’s not to say the US has lost military dominance in the region. Rather, the great power contestation is now being defined by US-led multilateral alliances and an autocratic China.
No doubt Malaysia’s longstanding policy of neutrality and non-alignment has been successful in managing its bilateral ties with China and the US, but the evolving security environment requires Malaysia to undergo a reality check. Malaysia’s government in Putrajaya needs to evaluate its long-term strategic objectives and how best to attain them.
One such area that needs to be securitised is Malaysia’s strategic interests in the Strait of Malacca. Often coined as the ‘Malacca Dilemma’, China’s heavy reliance on the Strait of Malacca for trade makes it particularly vulnerable to economic impacts should there be disruptions to the free flow of trade in this chokepoint. This makes the strait of strategic interest to China as well.
Whether due to Putrajaya’s changing strategy in the Indo-Pacific, fear of indebtedness, or a combination of both, the termination of the Melaka Gateway project, which was part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative in Malaysia, was the right call from a national security perspective. It’s imperative that Malaysia preserves its maritime sovereignty over the strait, given it’s linked to Malaysia’s economic prosperity and critical infrastructure like ports and navigation systems.
In this context, Malaysia shouldn’t rule out pursuing other creative alignments and partnerships to strengthen its national interests, such as establishing a joint security dialogue with littoral states like Singapore and Indonesia to enhance signals capabilities, intelligence-sharing, and interoperability in the Strait of Malacca and its vicinity.
With the UK and Australia now assuming a more active role in the Indo-Pacific, the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) will likely see a revitalisation. Unlike AUKUS, which embraces a posture of active deterrence, the FPDA, which recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary, will continue to act as a safety net through its consultative defence arrangement between Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. This partnership is significant because it’s the only multilateral defence arrangement with Southeast Asian countries which the US is not part of, giving it flexibility in the US-China rivalry. Plus, the FPDA ensures Australian operational presence in Southeast Asia through the RMAF Butterworth base – Australia’s only permanent air force base overseas.
Although the FPDA doesn’t provide a military commitment, it keeps an open communication channel during a crisis. The annual Exercise Bersama Lima also allows the five countries to appraise capability and improve interoperability. However, to meet contemporary challenges and asymmetric threats, the FPDA should deepen defence cooperation in the cyber and electronic domains, among others.
For Canberra, the continued engagement with Malaysia through forums like ASEAN and the FPDA is essential to promote trust and steadfastness between the two nations. But 2022 should be the year Malaysia reimagines its potential and steps up its contribution in the regional architecture.
Paul Sigar was a delegate at the Australian Crisis Simulation Summit 2021.