Prospects for Malaysia and India in the Indo-Pacific Region

The chronicle of the Indo-Pacific region, in terms of geopolitics and strategic outlook, encompasses the gradual cultivation of new relationships and the redefinition of old ones in an international setting. In this sense, like many of the Indo-Pacific spill over effects, the Malaysia-India relationship provides opportunities. The two countries share a traditional and long-standing friendship, and the Indo-Pacific construct aims to positively restore and further build on new dynamics in that strategic partnership.

Conceptually, Malaysia and India’s interaction in this construct can be best understood in the context of ‘regional security complex’ wherein the Indo-Pacific composition furthers inter-regional connectivity and that state-led networks are seeking to achieve common interests providing a springboard towards a more integrated Indo-Pacific region. Against this backdrop, three particular regional platforms provide opportunities for greater consolidation between Malaysia and India. This point of view can be visualized through a mental map from the ‘Southwest of the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia’ (SEA). Within this map, there are three cardinal stepping stones: The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA); the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), acting as bridge between India and Malaysia at the crossroads of the Bay of Bengal; and finally the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Playing a predominant role in IORA, India can act as a bridge for Malaysia to collaborate more in the Indo-Pacific region. When India took over as Chair in 2011, it rejuvenated IORA with its ten-point approach. This simply shows India’s leadership role, commitment, and importance to IORA are substantial. As a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), and as an actor seeking to further materialize the Indo-Pacific objectives, India stands to play a more active role in spearheading Malaysia’s dialogue partnership through supporting deeper engagements and capacity-building initiatives in maritime domain awareness. As a member since 1997, Malaysia is yet to fulfil its role to the fullest; one way to gain endorsement, however, would be to build on government-to-government engagement parallel with IORA objectives. New Delhi can support Kuala Lumpur’s position by setting up secretariats in both countries at the political level to represent IORA initiatives. At a lower key, both countries could also set up a centre of excellence to promote policy studies, scholarly discussions, workshops, and conferences to share best practices.

To reciprocate, Malaysia can be a strong bridge for India in ASEAN. The landmark of India-SEA relations, the first phase of the Look East Policy (LEP) in 1992, signifies an understanding of the long-term need for enhanced cooperation in all areas of strategic operation in both regions. Since the LEP’s first phase, India’s position has risen from a sectorial dialogue partner in 1992 to a full member in 2005 in the East Asian Summit. Under the second phase of the LEP, India began using existing ASEAN-led regional processes; through the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM), India has promoted defence and military exchanges and cooperation, and through the ASEAN Regional Forum, India has fostered constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues. Lest we forget, Malaysia was the first ASEAN member India agreed to defence cooperation as early as 1993. The Malaysia-India Defence Cooperation Meeting (MIDCOM) established under this framework marked an important maritime development among SEA countries in the region.

After commemorating fifty years of their diplomatic relations in 2007, Malaysia and India formed an even stronger foundation through the establishment of the Strategic Partnership in October 2010. This ‘strategic partnership’ meant building stronger bilateral ties and re-engagement in areas such as economy, security-defence, and socio- cultural dimensions. The Act East Policy (AEP) in 2014 also became a more purposeful intensified effort to engage more regional friendship in the Asia Pacific Region. Today, with the shift from ‘Asia’ to Indo-Pacific confluence, a stronger partnership can be fostered simply because the definition of ‘East’ has been elevated to extend from Australia to East Asia, with ASEAN playing an important role.  

Whilst Malaysia and India already have existing partnerships via IORA and ASEAN, true potential for both states exists in BIMSTEC. Although Malaysia is not a member of BIMSTEC, the country naturally holds a strong geographical proximity in terms of sea connectivity, as it sits at the entrance of the Bay of Bengal. With Malaysia situated at the end of the Bay of Bengal’s gate at the east, linking further to the Strait of Malacca, its role cannot be ignored. If there is a strong conviction in India to expand partnership with littoral and non-littoral states under the Indo-Pacific confluence, Malaysia’s involvement in BIMSTEC is crucial; India’s ability to build stronger connectivity and a bridge between South Asia and SEA under the Indo-Pacific confluence will rely on Malaysia in this regard.

No doubt both states are good friends. However, despite a cordial friendship, the relationship between the two countries has not been fully explored. The emergence of the Indo-Pacific region has indeed given new life to the relationship. But it is important to understand that the Indo-Pacific confluence resembles a spaghetti bowl, and for the Indo-Pacific to fully achieve its agenda, Malaysia-India is a key strand; connecting these two countries further could enable extra-regional connectedness. A breakthrough in the two countries’ current relationship is therefore necessary. It is strongly recommended that India should play a bigger role in this relationship, especially since India is a Quad member and holds a better position in the Indo-Pacific composition to assist Malaysia. In the case of Malaysia, stronger political will and trust is important to engage with India. With both sides assuming stronger positions, this particular cord of convergence will improve the implementation of the Indo-Pacific composition.

Tharishini Krishnan is a senior lecturer at the Department of Strategic Studies at the National Defence University of Malaysia (NDUM) and a Centre for Defense and International Security Studies Research Fellow, NDUM.

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