Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is set to reconfigure geopolitical realities in Asean by posturing Japan as the third force, writes Sathish Govind.
Malaysia is set to revive its Look East strategy with Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad pivoting the country’s foreign policy back to his earlier stint in office.
Malaysia’s pivot to the east is Mr Mahathir’s way to emulate the many positive qualities the countries such as Japan and South Korea has to offer.
Aside from continuing this strategy, this time around Mr Mahathir is set to reconfigure the geopolitical realities in the region by posturing Japan as the third force while the rivalry between the US and China intensifies over trade and the South China Sea (SCS).
Mr Mahathir is set to scale the equations away from China as Japan is seen as a much more reliable partner considering its history of extending aid and assistance to Asean countries.
How Mr Mahathir moves its investment and trade perspective from China to reduce Malaysia’s dependence from Beijing would be a template for other Asean countries to follow. His special envoy, Tun Daim Zainuddin’s recent visit to Beijing is now seen as the first step in the renegotiation process of several contracts and loans that the Pakatan Harapan regime says is heavily skewed against Malaysia. These deals were brokered by the previous regime of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak.
With this move, Mr Mahathir paves the way for the re-balancing of its over-reliance on China and this comes at a time when Tokyo is set to take a bigger role in Malaysia’s and Asean’s economic future. Japan has invested a lot more in the region since 2000 and this is likely to increase in the future.
The savings rate in the Japanese corporate sector in the last four years has reached $1 trillion due to record profits posted from the non-utilisation of funds. The estimated idle funds in the Japanese private sector is as large as the amount promised by China to Asian nations, the Middle East and Europe for its Belt and Road Initiative projects.
In addition, Japan’s ageing and shrinking population is hindering the corporate world from investing in the country. This is a single motivation for Japanese corporations that have spent more than $100 billion in foreign takeovers in 2016 alone.
Aside from that, Japan would also play an assertive role through the ‘quadrilateral’ coalition with India, the US and Australia, which is likely to keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open. This is seen as a counter to the assertiveness from China in the region.
However, it would be difficult for Japan to step out of the shadow of the US considering the fact that its actions have more or less been construed as a proxy to the US. During the 1990’s, Japan refused to support the Malaysia-lead East Asian Economic Caucus for fear that it might alienate Washington. The general consensus among the diplomatic circles in the region is that Japan has been soft in the region for fear of alienating the Chinese or the Americans.
But for Asean member countries, the need to forge close relations with one country need not be at the exclusion of the other, as a good relationship with Japan need not be at the determinant of its relationship with China.
While Malaysia is set to revive its Look East policy, Mr Mahathir is also set to visit China in mid-August. The aim is to woo Chinese investments into the country on condition that they use Malaysian labour and the country’s local resources. In fact, Malaysia has categorically stated that it welcomes investments from any part of the world as long as these facilitate the country in its bid to become a high-income nation.
Asean countries must also shed their shackles of over-dependence on China and embolden themselves through pacts with fellow Asean states to safeguard the region.
They could follow Mr Mahathir’s proposal for Asean countries to take charge of sea-patrols and joint-patrols against the threat of pirates, instead of having Chinese or American warships in the maritime area that could stoke tensions with the potential of escalating into a full blown conflict. In this way the destiny of Asean countries would be determined by member nations, without having to subjugate the region to any super powers.
Once these security fears are allayed, Asean member countries are free to forge trade and economic alliances that would bolster their economic and political interests.
In Mr Mahathir’s view, Asean countries must follow his trail blazing efforts in defusing conflicts in the region. He appears to have struck the right chord in the quest to seek a delicate balance between China and Japan with his new Look East policy.
Sathish Govind was an analyst at the ISIS Malaysia Think Tank Group and also assistant editor at Malay Mail.