No. 244 dated 30 July 2012
Malaysia's China Policy in the Post-Mahathir Era: A Neoclassical Realist Explanation
By KUIK Cheng-Chwee
Malaysia’s China policy in the post-Cold War era – as an instance of a smaller state’s strategy toward a proximate and rising great power – has been characterized by three patterns. First, there was a shift from hostility and guarded rapprochement during the Cold War to cordiality and maturing partnership in the post-Cold War era. Second, despite the overall positive development, Malaysia’s China policy has remained, in essence, a hedging approach that is driven by both a pragmatic desire to maximize benefits from a closer relationship with the neighboring giant and a contingent calculation to guard against any long-term strategic risks in the uncertain regional environment. Third, such a two-pronged approach, which took shape since the 1990s under Mahathir Mohamad, has endured beyond the Mahathir era. Indeed, under his successors Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Tun Razak, Malaysia has continued to pursue a policy of dualism vis-à-vis China. What explains the enduring continuity of the hedging approach in Malaysia’s China policy? This paper adopts a neoclassical realist perspective, arguing that the continuity is attributed to both structural and domestic factors. Domestically, the changing bases of political legitimation in the multi-ethnic country, which highlight the increasing salience of economic performance and political inclusiveness as key sources of moral authority to the UMNO-led coalition government, have necessitated the succeeding leaders to continue pursuing a pragmatic policy aimed at ensuring a stable and productive relationship with China, not least to gain from the steadily growing bilateral trade and the giant’s growing outward investment. Structurally, Malaysia’s position as a smaller state has compelled it to be constantly vigilant about the uncertainty of state intentions and inter-great power relations, which in turn demands it adopts contingent measures to hedge against longer-term risks. It is such structural and domestic determinants that have fundamentally shaped the country’s policy towards China in general and the South China Sea issue in particular, which characteristically bears the mark of a delicate dualism, i.e. an explicit preference for engaging China through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, but one that is backed by a low-key practice of maintaining and strengthening its traditional military links with its Western security partners.
* An earlier version of the paper was presented at the 8th International Malaysian Studies Conference (MSC8), Bangi, 9 July 2012. I would like to thank Zakaria Haji Ahmad, Tang Siew Mun, Nor Azizan Idris, Chin Kok Fay, Ravichandran Moorthy, Heng Pek Koon, Lee Poh Ping, Stephen Leong, and Joseph Liow for their comments and suggestions to improve the paper. I gratefully acknowledge the financial support from the UKM Centre for Research and Innovation Management (CRIM)’s grant GGPM-2012-038, and the ISIS-UKM Project on Malaysia-China Relations. I also thank my research assistants Wong Chee Ming and Aini Raudhah Roslam for their help in data collection. All shortcomings are my own.
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KUIK Cheng-Chwee is an Associate Professor at the Strategic Studies and International Relations Program at the National University of Malaysia (UKM). He was a recipient of the British Chevening Award and the Fulbright Graduate Scholarship. He received his M. Litt. in International Security Studies from the University of St Andrews, and Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC. Kuik researches on smaller states’ alignment behavior, Southeast Asia-China relations, and Asia Pacific security. His publications include: “Multilateralism in China’s ASEAN Policy” (Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2005), “China’s Evolving Multilateralism in Asia” (in Calder and Fukuyama, East Asian Multilateralism, 2008), “China’s Evolving Strategic Profile in East Asia: A Southeast Asian Perspective” (in Li and Lee, China and East Asian Strategic Dynamics, 2011), and "The China Factor in the U.S. 'Re-Engagement' with Southeast Asia: Drivers and Limits of Converged Hedging" (Asian Politics and Policy, 2012). His article “The Essence of Hedging: Malaysia and Singapore’s Response to a Rising China” (Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2008) was awarded the 2009 Michael Leifer Memorial Prize by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). From August 2012 until August 2013, he is a Visiting Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. He can be contacted at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.