Yesterday's post described the exclusion of non-Malays from virtually every aspect of public life in Malaysia and the increasing dissatisfaction of Malaysians in the Bornean states with Kuala Lumpur. These are not simply domestic matters. Neighbouring states and global powers are closely watching the evolution of the Malaysian polity as it moves further towards crisis. As the US and China spar for influence in the region, a dislocating Malaysia will offer them either threat or opportunity.
What do these diverse and increasingly intractable problems within Malaysia mean for regional stability and for major power relations in Southeast Asia?
ASEAN, with its long-standing policy of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of members, portrays Malaysia as a fulcrum, connecting maritime and mainland parts of Southeast Asia. However, within and among ASEAN states, there are all sorts of softly spoken concerns about Malaysia's domestic contradictions. Moreover, the country is being watched closely by the major global powers because they see the country as a key fault line in the region, and recognise the possibilities of massive social and political dislocation and even disintegration resulting from the various contradictions and inequalities noted in the previous post.
China has been particularly attentive to Malaysia, and Malaysian authorities seem to feel that they enjoy a 'special relationship' with the PRC.
In 2012 Malaysia dutifully returned to China a number of refugee Uighurs who had fled to Malaysia. And during the visit by President Xi Jinping to Malaysia in late 2013, bilateral relations were upgraded to a 'comprehensive strategic partnership.' Malaysia is now China's major trade partner in ASEAN. The two countries have established joint industrial parks in both countries and Xinhuanet recently added a Malaysia channel to its coverage. Even competing maritime claims seeming not to be a cause of concern. When the Philippines and Vietnam castigated China for its fishing bans in the South China Sea last year, Malaysia remained tactfully quiet.
China's particular interest in Sabah was noted in The Strategist last year, and during his visit to Beijing in October, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein invited Chinese Defence Minister General Chang Wanquan to visit the Royal Malaysian Navy base there to initiate direct contact between Malaysia's Naval Region Command 2 and China's Southern Sea Fleet Command. This is the curtain-raiser for joint military exercises involving land, sea and air forces of both countries. Recent Chinese naval operations just off Sarawak have also attracted wide attention and some concern. However, China's anger over Malaysia's handling of the MH370 affair has produced tension between these two states, and how this will affect this year's commemoration of the 40th anniversary of their diplomatic ties remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the US has not simply observed events.
It has a real interest in preserving ASEAN as a counterweight to China and in ensuring that Malaysia does not combust or divide. The US remains the largest foreign investor in Malaysia, while Malaysia continues to enjoy a healthy trade surplus with America. At the same time, the US is continuing to push Malaysia to sign on to the increasingly troubled TPP.
On the security front, the US will undoubtedly continue its surveillance of Malaysia, with the assistance of Singapore. US officials have been flying into Kuala Lumpur in droves. Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and US Trade Representative Michael Froman, for example, all visited Malaysia in October 2013, and early in 2014, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with his Malaysian counterpart Hishammuddin in Washington to discuss security cooperation.
US President Obama is due to visit Malaysia in late April, when he will seek ways to turn this fault line into a fulcrum. The only other American president to have visited Malaysia was Lyndon Johnson back in 1966, which underlines the concern which the US is now feeling in respect of Malaysia and Southeast Asia more generally.
As issues of regional security and ASEAN's futures are discussed, President Obama might be moved to reflect on the fact that it was the anti-apartheid movement which first brought him to political engagement. Recognising that societies built on racist exclusion can never be stable, secure, just or long lasting, he might encourage Malaysia to seek ways to begin to redress the continuing injustices of its ethnocratic system. The contribution of such a change to social stability within the country, to the strengthening of the integrity of the Malaysian polity, and to regional security more generally, would be in everyone's interests.