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Malaysia: Is Najib Following in Duterte’s Footsteps?; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0138/2016

Courtesy: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Malaysia: Is Najib Following in Duterte’s Footsteps?,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, November 1, 2016.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit to China is pretty interesting. It looks like Malaysia is getting ready to buy various military assets from Beijing and has already awarded some infrastructure projects to the Chinese. And, of course, this follows Philippine President Duterte’s own rebalancing toward a more independent foreign policy.

What is your assessment? Is Malaysia something of a domino here?

ANSWER: Prime Minister Najib has often characterized Malaysia’s relations with China as a “special relationship.” Najib has been praised in the past by Chinese leaders for how he has handled South China Sea issues, quietly and bilaterally. In recent years, however, Malaysia has grown increasingly concerned about the presence of Chinese Coast Guard ships around Luconia shoal and the constant intrusions of Chinese fishermen into Malaysia’s EEZ. That is why Malaysia has permitted visits by U.S. Aircraft Carriers and has allowed P8 Poseidon aircraft to stage maritime patrols from Malaysian air bases. It was Malaysia that vented its frustration over the lack of progress on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea by issuing – and later retracting – the agreed ASEAN press statement to be issued at the conclusion of the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers Meeting earlier this year.

The 1MDB scandal is a hot button issue domestically and Najib is very concerned by external investigations that he cannot control. The has resulted in frictions in Malaysia’s relations with the Obama Administration. Malaysia and China have a robust trade relationship. Malaysia is ASEAN’s largest exporting country to China. China is Malaysia’s largest trade partner. Malaysia has a relatively large surplus. Malaysia’s reported willingness to purchase military platforms and weapons from China is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, procurement of Chinese defence materials will add ballast to their bilateral relationship. On the other hand, China will have proprietary knowledge of the capabilities and performances of the weapons its sells. This is pertinent in the case if Malaysia purchases Chinese submarines.

I wouldn’t characterize Malaysia as a “domino”. Malaysia will not align itself with China. The cornerstone of its defence is the Five Power Defence Agreements with  Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Malaysia will continue to welcome the presence of U.S. warships in the region. Note also that Malaysia and Vietnam recently decided to raise their defence relations by establishing a higher level defence committee and to explore cooperation in defence industry and technology.

The bottom line is that in this period of uncertain leadership transition in the United States, and Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power in Beijing, Malaysia is pursuing a hedging strategy.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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