In case you missed it, China and Malaysia held joint military exercises last weekend, the largest ever military collaboration between Beijing and an ASEAN country. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner, and plans for these exercises were announced at the end of August. China’s official media organ, Xinhua, has the story:
Yi Xiaoguang, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, said in an address at the closing ceremony that during the exercise, the two sides have increased mutual understanding through sincere exchanges, enhanced mutual trust through close collaboration and promoted friendship through joint tasks.
Malaysian Deputy Defence Minister Mohd Johari Baharum said that the exercise has demonstrated how the armed forces of Malaysia and China can cooperate to achieve their goals.
At a press conference held after the closing ceremony, Yi said China’s armed forces are willing to develop military-to-military relations that are non-confrontational and not directed against any third party.
We shouldn’t read too much into this development. In Asia’s Game of Thrones, Kuala Lumpur has kept Beijing at an arms length where possible, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has a close, if low-profile, relationship with President Obama—the two men golfed together in Hawaii last December. Additionally, according to a recent report, the countries have been negotiating to give American spy planes use of Malaysian airstrips. Moreover, Japan and Malaysia upgraded ties in May, sending a clear signal to Beijing. Although these China–Malaysia exercises are noteworthy, they don’t appear to indicate a substantive change in Najib’s carefully-hedged strategy.
That could, however, change. Even if its foreign policy appears stable for the moment, Malaysia’s domestic politics are anything but: Najib is struggling to respond to corruption charges, and the United States Justice Department has now joined the intensifying investigation of his personal accounts. If Najib is forced to resign, we’ll be watching carefully to see if his successor (who would probably come from the same right-wing party which has ruled since independence) takes Malaysia’s foreign policy in a different direction.