Malaysia has been at the center of an intense tug of war between China and the United States. China is increasing its influence in the Asia Pacific region day by day and its ambitions have reached at a point where Washington can no longer be alright with a role as a mere spectator. Pentagon is trying to contain Chinese influence in this particular region with Barrack Obama terming the region of utmost importance to the United States. South China Sea is one issue, which has rather escalated in recent months in the wake of US Naval patrols in the region. East China Sea is another area where China and United States are at odds to each other.

Malaysia Playing It Neat With U.S. And China

This is where Malaysia comes in and that has put the country in a spot where it is definitely torn for choice – whether to join the Chinese rise or join some other regional countries like Australia, Taiwan and as a result, become the latest ally United States has in the region. However, Malaysia has been playing it carefully and has once again reaffirmed to continue its defense ties with both United States and China.

Malaysia – a state torn for choice

While other countries are choosing sides here and that has created an atmosphere resembling to that of Cold War, Malaysia has chosen not to jump in the bandwagon and has put its own priorities first, which is a trend expected to be followed by other regional countries like Indonesia and Thailand. Malaysian authorities are improving their defense ties with United States at one hand, and on the other hand, they are joining hands with Beijing.

On Nov 5, 2015, in Kuala Lumpur, in a press conference, the Malaysian defense minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein revealed that commitments to enhance defense ties between Malaysia and U.S. and Malaysia and China have been made between him and his U.S. and Chinese counterparts.

He stated that his U.S. counterpart, US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter and Hisham’s Chinese counterpart, China’s Minister of National Defense and State Councilor, General Chang Wanquan have made calls on him on the sidelines of ADMM-Plus (ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus) to work out ways to improve defense ties between the countries as well as to improve the security of the region.

On the meeting with U.S. secretary of defense, Hisham said that during the bilateral meeting with Secretary Carter, they had discussed a wide variety of topics related to bilateral defense relations of the two countries including matters of operational interests. He mentioned a special interest and intent to implement and enhance significant developments in military-to-military cooperation.

Regarding his meeting with General Chang, he stated that the meeting with General Chang covered global security landscape and its ever-changing nature as well as its current situation and ongoing trends. He also said that the meeting also encompassed discussions on issues of strategic importance to both countries. According to his statements, matters of operational interests had also been discussed with General Chang with the intent to implement and enhance significant developments in military-to-military cooperation.

Furthermore, in the regard of enhancing defense ties with U.S. he informed about a joint upcoming military exercise with the US army. An exercise has been scheduled at the end of this month and is scheduled to take place in Sabah. Malaysian Armed forces and U.S. Army named MALUS AMPHEX are to participate in the joint military exercise.

He said that in the meeting with General Chang, they reviewed and acknowledged the success and successful conduct of the first joint military exercise between China and Malaysia. The exercise was named “’Peace and Friendship” and Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had taken part in it last September.

Defensive gains from Washington and Beijing

Earlier to both meetings, Hisham had joined Secretary Crater for a visit on the ‘USS Theodore Roosevelt’ aircraft carrier which is currently based in international waters just off the coasts of Sabah. Afterwards, they also visited the Royal Malaysian Navy base in Teluk Sepanggar, Sabah.

Hisham has also extended invitation to both Secretary Crater and general Chang to participate in biennial Defense Services Asia Exhibition and Conference 2016 (DSA 2016) which will be held from April 18 to 21, next year in Malaysia.

Looking at all these events, Malaysia has turned out to be major player in Asia Pacific politics and that is something to look up to. It can potentially bring both Beijing and Washington closer to each other and calm down the atmosphere, which has started to turn into hostile in recent months. How China and United States will look into matters with Malaysia in future is yet to be known. But the way Malaysian government has played its part, it is expected that the country will become a major player in this area.

China has once again affirmed its stance of peaceful rise and has assured United States of that and the role of Malaysia could be critical in coming years.

Pursuing a balanced approach might not remain an option for long

Keeping strategic options open has always been a hallmark of Malaysian policy and Kuala Lumpur is not looking to buck the trend anytime soon. Always wary of all external powers, Malaysian leaders of yesteryears have always opted for balanced relationships in the last couple of decades rather than picking up sides. And although things might force them to reassess everything from the scratch, it is clear that Malaysia is not willing to remain a bystander in a region that is really defining a new era in terms of regional security.

So far, Malaysia has done admirably well in terms of keeping every external power at arm’s length while expanding economic ties with US and China. However, a time is likely to come when these preferences will be forced to experience a shift where the country will have to decide whether it really wants to accommodate China over the South China Sea issue or reshape its relationship with Beijing rather than searching for the right balance.