One area that successive Malaysian administrations have done well is in foreign policy. Balancing relations with the United States and with China could however prove more challenging than any other bilateral relationships. Thus far it appears to be well managed.

Malaysia’s most important ally since the 1980s has been the United States. In 2012, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies had a glowing report on the state of US-Malaysia relations, and predicted even better times were to come.

Relations between the United States and Malaysia are at an all-time high. Since President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Najib Razak entered office in 2009, both countries’ governments have committed to a new beginning and moved to establish closer ties through increased political, economic, and people-to-people cooperation.

This naturally raises questions on how Malaysia would manage its relationship with China. Two articles over at The Strategists, sheds some light, but raises even more questions.

Shariman Lockman (an ANU alumnus) of ISIS (Malaysia) writing in March this year, explains “Why Malaysia is not afraid of China (for now)”. He believes, that Malaysia believes, that Malaysia has a “special” relationship or at least, more special than its neighbours in the region can claim, with China.

…In general, China’s treated Malaysia with kid gloves on their overlapping maritime claims. Unlike in the case of the Philippines and Vietnam, China hasn’t publicly objected to Malaysia’s oil and gas explorations in the South China Sea. Looking at the bigger picture, China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner, and no other Southeast Asian country trades as much with China as Malaysia does. In 2012, the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur was the second-largest issuer of Chinese visas in the world. Given the intensity and benefits of the relationship, it hardly makes sense for Malaysia to depart from its current policy, which puts a premium on quiet diplomacy with China.

Lockman concludes politely that,

So, for now, Malaysian leaders will continue to embrace China’s rise and give it the benefit of the doubt. They’ll continue to downplay regional anxieties about China’s military build-up. But if China decides that amphibious landing ships are the best tools to resolve disputes, Malaysia may well need to rethink its present approach.

Another ANU alumnus, Geoff Wade writing after Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Malaysia, raises an audacious possibility — will Malaysia allow China a naval base in Sabah?

But the most important role Sabah can play in China’s plans for the future derives from its location as the precise centre of maritime Southeast Asia. Given China’s claims to the majority of the South China Sea and its overall blue-water naval aspirations, a naval base located in Sabah would allow it unparalleled access to the South China Sea and to Southeast Asia more generally.

What do New Mandala readers think is happening?