The Platform

A view of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. (Jimmy Tran)

As the terrain of global politics shifts, neutrality and non-alignment can become a quagmire of contradictions.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim recently issued a clarion call from the geopolitical margins, championing relations with China while simultaneously casting a critical eye on the burgeoning “China-phobia” brewing amongst Western nations. This stance, highlighted amid the tensions surfacing at forums like the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, underscores the complexity of regional diplomacy in an era of great power competition.

The imperative for a steadfast commitment to uphold a rules-based international order, unfettered by territorial ambitions and respect for sovereign laws, has never been more pressing. Such a framework, Anwar argues, is not a zero-sum game aimed at the containment of rising powers but rather a guarantee that the scales of justice and equity balance in favor of all, irrespective of might.

Echoing through the corridors of power in Western capitals, the clarion call for the preservation of this order resonates with the urgency of maintaining open sea lanes and navigational freedoms—cornerstones of global commerce underpinned by international accords like UNCLOS. These foundational tenets of trade and national security form a bulwark against the erosion of sovereign rights in the face of expansionist narratives.

It is in the confluence of these ideals that the West, alongside nations that share its vision, rises to reaffirm norms that have long shaped international conduct. Their collective voice does not seek to isolate or diminish Beijing’s global stature, but rather to fortify the ramparts of an order that respects the sovereignty of nations and the rules that bind them.

Washington, as the architect of the post-World War II order, has played the long game, wielding economic and military supremacy to forge a world less fraught with conflict. However, the dividends of this long-standing peace, once reaped liberally by nations the world over, are now in jeopardy, threatened by autocratic impulses and the transgression of international norms. The Western response—calling for increased diligence in safeguarding the global architecture of laws and norms—seeks not division but rather the reinforcement of a collective commitment to a stable world order.

Turning our gaze to the contested waters of the South China Sea, where recent escalations have seen Beijing’s maritime militia expand their presence, Malaysia’s time-tested approach to these disputes is once again under the international microscope. As vessels like the China Coast Guard 5403 assert their presence, a challenge is posed not only to Malaysia’s sovereignty but to the principles of peaceful resource management and the avoidance of conflict escalation.

At the heart of Malaysia’s stance lies a vital economic interest: the fossil fuel reserves that lie beneath the South China Sea, critical to national prosperity. Here, the imperative is clear—the nation must navigate a path that firmly establishes its rights and interests while maintaining strategic partnerships, unfettered by overreliance on any single economic power.

Malaysia’s historic predilection for quiet diplomacy in these maritime disputes, where the stakes are high, speaks to a broader narrative within ASEAN. The region grapples with internal divisions on how to confront Beijing’s assertiveness, with economic dependencies casting long shadows over sovereign decisions.

Yet, as the terrain of global politics shifts, neutrality and non-alignment can become a quagmire of contradictions. Malaysia’s delicate balance of economic interests and security concerns, once a sustainable model, now faces the centrifugal forces of a changing world. As we’ve seen with Finland and Sweden’s recent accession to NATO, the recalibration of national security postures in response to perceived threats is a trend gaining momentum.

The future calls for a nuanced strategy, one that aligns economic and security imperatives with a value-based international order. In forging this path, Malaysia can harness the transformative power of economic innovation, labor standards, and human rights protections to craft a robust and self-reliant national identity. Herein lies the promise of sustainable prosperity, guided by principles and international cooperation.

In the broader geopolitical theatre, the narrative that positions the West as an unwelcome actor fails to recognize the universality of the principles it espouses. The West’s advocacy for a free and open Indo-Pacific is emblematic of a shared vision for a world where rules and norms apply equally to all, a counterpoint to the assertion of unilateral power at the expense of collective security.

Indeed, despite the ebb and flow of economic tides, the United States retains a preeminent role in the global power equation, its resilience evident across the spectrums of technology, military strength, and socio-economic stability. The narrative of the ‘inevitable’ rise of one nation and the ‘decline’ of another often overlooks the enduring nature of these American strengths.

As Malaysia navigates this dynamic landscape, it must realign its policies to champion a rules-based order that safeguards regional stability. The nation’s future, and indeed the broader regional tapestry, hinges on the interplay of values, principles, and enduring partnerships that underscore a collective commitment to a stable and prosperous world. America and the West, in this vision, stand as guardians of these principles, ensuring their vitality for generations to come.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.