Middle powers like Malaysia can help reduce tensions between major powers such as the US and China as they approach relations both pragmatically and judiciously, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim says.
“We will work with partners to minimise risks, namely outright conflict or the bifurcation of the global economy into rigid blocs. Neither seems likely soon, but both have become plausible under today’s mounting pressures.
“I do not believe armed conflict between major powers is inevitable, and middle powers like Malaysia can help reduce tensions through creative diplomacy,” he said at a special lecture titled Super Power Rivalry and Rising Tensions in the Asia Pacific at the University of California on Tuesday. About 250 students attended the event.
Space for robust US-China relations
Anwar said there remains space to pursue robust relations with both the US and China, particularly in spheres like climate change, energy transition, education, and people-to-people ties that offer room for cooperation.
Recognising that contradictions will inevitably emerge, Malaysia still sees value in engaging both Washington and Beijing, he said.
“America’s economic dynamism, culture of innovation, and central role in underwriting regional stability will ensure that it leads in many spheres for the foreseeable future.
“Barring the occasional lapses in policy positions, America’s overall openness to immigration and talent sustains this competitive edge. So long as peaceful competition remains possible, countries like ours need not reflexively choose one side or the other.”
Anwar said China would remain central to regional affairs due to its size, proximity, and deep linkages with Southeast Asia.
“As China’s economy matures, it will shift emphasis from investment and exports towards domestic consumption and services. The sheer scale of China’s population ensures its enormous market will continue to grow in significance.
“These realities mean constructive relations with China remain essential, even as we balance America’s enduring role.
“Engaging both major powers provides Malaysia with more strategic space to advance our national interests. To my mind, this mantra applies across the board for Southeast Asia, although there will be shades of differentiation in the details,” said Anwar, who is also the finance minister.
On the South China Sea, the prime minister said Malaysia’s position is rooted in enduring strategic and economic imperatives.
“We strongly oppose any actions undermining our territorial integrity or freedom of navigation. Unfettered sea lines of communication through the South China Sea are critical, as our nation would be bifurcated without them.”
Nevertheless, Anwar said Malaysia believes in the power of diplomacy as the best tool for conflict resolution.
“We also rely heavily on oil and gas resources within our lawful exclusive economic zone, which account for up to 40% of government revenue depending on commodity prices. Our position has been consistent and remains unchanged.”
He also said that a pragmatic foreign policy integrates diplomacy and seeks stability.
“While uncompromising in standing up for sovereign rights, Malaysia consistently grounds its approach in international law, particularly UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).
“And while periodic challenges arise, Malaysia has succeeded in pursuing a strategic partnership with China, enabling enhanced cooperation in areas like trade, investment, and tourism while still upholding our principles.
“We are determined to proceed in a constructive manner, one that has our long-term interests as the guiding star.”
US – China, Japan
He added that the continued US-China rivalry would be the structural reality of world affairs.
“Almost all major aspects of international relations will be shaped by this condition. Yet it would be too simple to reduce and boil everything down to just these two countries.”
Anwar said that due to its size, growing confidence on the international stage, and highly influential culture and global diaspora, India would become increasingly prominent in global affairs.
“And despite the naysayers, it is never wise to bet against Japan, whose economy has regained some of its previous lustre, demonstrating its sheer resilience.”
Anwar added that Japan’s wish to become a more normal country and play a more active role in the security of the Asia Pacific is natural and legitimate.
“We also look forward to South Korea extending its role in stabilising the broader Asia Pacific. A confluence of many nations, each seeking a responsible role and stake in the region, will generate an equilibrium that will sustain peace and prosperity for all,” he said.