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“US-Malaysia defense cooperation began in the 1960s, was boosted in the 1980s, in response to Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, and then boosted again after 9/11,” said Stratfor in an e-mail dated 8 June 2011.
Stratfor said that the US-Malaysia defence relationship was a well-guarded secret and was aimed at countering China.
“The relationship was often conducted discretely to avoid Malaysian domestic hang-ups, but after 9/11 it became more open, and Mahathir used the war on terrorism as a pretext to crush Islamist-leaning political opponents. However, what is important is that the US wants cooperation with Malaysia to focus more on precisely the threats posed by China's rising maritime power," the e-mail said.
Stratfor also classified Prime Minster Najib Tun Razak as a potential lame duck and said that if Barisan Nasional does not win big in the coming election then his party may oust him.
“Gates' meeting with Malaysian PM Najib is a meeting of one lame duck and a potential lame duck. If Najib can't win big in upcoming general elections -- by far the primary concern in Malaysia at the moment -- then his party may dump him.”
Okay I've finished looking into the recent US-Malaysia developments. The main story is simply that the US has said it is willing to expand military engagement, and has left the offer open to Malaysia to expand it. The relationship was often conducted discretely to avoid Malaysian domestic hang-ups, but after 9/11 it became more open, and Mahathir used the war on terrorism as a pretext to crush Islamist-leaning political opponents.
US-Malaysia defense cooperation began in the 1960s, was boosted in the 1980s, in response to Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, and then boosted again after 9/11. The low point in the relationship was the Asian financial crisis and Mahathir's run-in with the IMF, but ultimately Malaysia has always insisted on heavy state control of the economy and this hasn't hindered defense relationship. The relationship was often conducted discretely to avoid Malaysian domestic hang-ups, but after 9/11 it became more open, and Mahathir used the war on terrorism as a pretext to crush Islamist-leaning political opponents.
The US has set Indonesia as the cornerstone of ASEAN re-engagement, and reached out to others like Vietnam, but it is also reaching out to Malaysia as a natural economic partner and one of its examples of a "good" Muslim state. Moreover, Malaysia is embedded in the Southeast Asian security dynamic. It is a key state given its position on the Straits, and it has claims in the South China Sea territorial disputes, where the US is attempting to insinuate itself to prevent China from succeeding in dividing and isolating its ASEAN rivals.
Obama, who stresses his Pacific heritage, has already held a bilateral visit with Najib once before at the US Nuclear Security Summit, and Gates and Clinton both visited in 2010, prior to Gates recent bilateral with Najib at the recent Shangri-La conference. The US is entering the East Asia Summit this year (along with Russia), which Malaysia originated as a non-US influenced Asian discussion group; Malaysia is joining the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations for a large new regional trade framework. On the security front, Malaysia has hailed the US joining the ASEAN Defense Ministers meetings.
Malaysia in 2011 participated in the US/Thai Cobra Gold exercises, rather than being a mere observer. It recently sent a medical team to assist in Afghanistan. It remains a major counter-terrorism partner, and a counter-piracy player in the Strait, and has expanded authorized non-proliferation efforts by means of the 2010 Strategic Trade Act. Najib called for a new regional rapid-response team to deal with natural disasters, during his keynote address at Shangri-La.
Both sides are emphasizing that the main focal points of cooperation are counter-terrorism, Malaysian cooperation in Afghanistan, Malaysian enforcement of non-proliferation rules, counter-piracy, and natural disasters. Yet the US is clearly laying the groundwork for something bigger than this.
However, what is important is that the US wants cooperation with Malaysia to focus more on precisely the threats posed by China's rising maritime power. What the US is really offering is to expand its cooperation with Malaysia to cover maritime domain security and awareness. PACOM Chief Willard's comments in Kuala Lumpur highlight what the US has in mind: "Domain security -- particularly maritime security -- is the quintessential common cause among nations.
Not only for their navies but for the abundance of agencies that contribute to security ... coast guards or their equivalent, with law enforcement duties, in particular, can challenge illegal encroachment and criminal activities that navies may not. Attainment of maritime domain awareness -- essential to security operations -- requires whole-of-government collaboration within and across our nations, across governments, judiciary, commerce, transportation, treasury and foreign affairs agencies all play key roles in assuring maritime security."
Malaysia is not currently in this frame of mind. Najib's recent comments emphasized the wishful thinking that cooperation with the US and China are not exclusive, and multilateralism is the only way forward -- clearly Malaysia is trying to walk a the fine line and avoid 'cold war' scenarios between US and China.
As with most of the US' re-engagement efforts in ASEAN, the concrete progress may be slow to develop. Gates' meeting with Malaysian PM Najib is a meeting of one lame duck and a potential lame duck. If Najib can't win big in upcoming general elections -- by far the primary concern in Malaysia at the moment -- then his party may dump him. And Malaysian foreign policy is essentially top heavy, driven by the PM, as a legacy of the Mahathir era, so there may be a limit to anything the two sides should decide upon, until Malaysia's political situation is more certain.
It is also important to notice that China has been rapidly expanding its ties with Malaysia too. Hu Jintao visited in 2010, for the first time for a Chinese president in 20 years, and big business projects are under way, including Chinese companies building the new Kuala Lumpur mass transit railway.
But what we can see here is that the US is trying to nudge Malaysia into a new era of defense cooperation, one that is focused on maritime security in a way that seeks to bind China into existing structures, and prepare for contingencies if this fails.
While Malaysia is not yet ready to be put in a situation where it has to 'choose' between the US and China, and will avoid and delay doing this for a long time, ultimately its strategic priority lies with the most powerful navy, and that means the United States.
Malaysia has a large ethnic Chinese community that is economically powerful and increasingly a critical voting block with the power to weaken the ruling BN coalition -- this is conceivably a vulnerability in some future time. Malaysia has experienced Chinese-authored destablization in the past, in the form of Communist insurgency.
We are nowhere near a situation where China would revert to Cold War behaviour like this in supporting proxies to destabilize Malaysia. But my point in bringing this up is that ultimately Malaysia will side with the US if the situation comes to a standoff, because only the US (and its allies like Australia and Japan) can guarantee Malaysia's security and economic stability in its current form.
The current question is how to maintain strong relations with both the US and China and avoid not move too fast or too far in a particular course of action that causes a negative reverberation on the other relationship. Since the US-China are in a 'thaw' period right now, this isn't as much of a problem, but as we've discussed the thaw can go away pretty soon, and China's maritime advances are gaining more attention. - (June 2011)