The U.S.-Malaysia Security Connection

February 25, 2016

 Number 335 | February 24, 2016


 The U.S.-Malaysia Security Connection

By Marvin Ott and Derek Maseloff

President Obama’s invitation to ASEAN leaders to join him in California was the latest initiative in a strategic contest between the U.S. and China to shape the future of Southeast Asia. That contest has political and economic elements but it includes an important–even core–security dimension. Defense/security ties between the U.S. and Southeast Asian states run the gamut from minimal (Laos) to intimate (Singapore) to full treaty alliance (Philippines).

These relationships have also been remarkably dynamic as U.S.-Vietnamese ties wax and those with Thailand wane. Burma/Myanmar has moved from distant and hostile toward a potential, but still uncertain, strategic entente. In all this protean complexity Malaysia stands out as particularly intriguing.

Malaya–and then Malaysia–gained independence via amicable negotiations with its former colonial overlord, Great Britain. The U.S. was a friendly, but marginal factor in Malaysia’s security equation during the first two decades of independence. The advent of the Mahathir era (1981-2003) brought a new and paradoxical tone to U.S.-Malaysia relations.

Mahathir, animated by a idiosyncratic anti-colonial zeal, seemed to go out of his way to irritate Washington with invective that portrayed America as at once arrogant, a bully, and, if not anti-Muslim, something very close to it. Yet while flagellating U.S. diplomats and political leaders he allowed security relations (defense and intelligence) with Washington to grow and prosper. The same was true when it came to U.S. corporate (particularly technology) investments in Malaysia.

The force of Mahathir’s personality and the length of his tenure left a durable imprint on Malaysian perceptions of America which were reinforced by the post-9/11 invasions of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. The easy cordiality between Kuala Lumpur and Washington of the first two decades was replaced by a steady diet of public rancor. From a strategic perspective, Mahathir’s anti-American posturing came without serious cost because Malaysia faced no critical security threats for the three decades following the Vietnam War.

A different, almost mirror image, played out in Malaysia-China relations. During the early years of Malaysian independence China was seen as a mortal threat given Maoist support for the Malaysian communist insurgency of the 1950s and early 1960s and for Sukarno’s attempt to dismember Malaysia (1963-5). But by the 1980s Deng Xiaoping had set China on a course of normal state-to-state relations and rapid economic development. China, for Mahathir, had the additional virtue of being Asian and not America

The Malaysia that Mahathir bequeathed with his retirement, and that Najib Razak inherited upon becoming Prime Minister a few years later (2009), was overtly friendly toward China and equally overtly suspicious of the U.S. Malaysia took considerable pride in having been the first ASEAN government to normalize diplomatic relations with China in 1974. That agreement is particularly resonate because it was negotiated by the current Prime Minister’s father.

But by 2009 the strategic landscape in Southeast Asia was changing rapidly and profoundly. The dramatic growth in China’s maritime military power coupled with Beijing’s undisguised territorial ambitions in the South China Sea rendered Kuala Lumpur’s security orientation increasingly out of sync with reality. China’s determination to enforce the 9-Dash line as a sovereign boundary meant that Malaysia would–if China’s view prevailed–have to give up its own extensive maritime claims.

It was hard to have any doubt on this point when Chinese naval and paramilitary flotillas began making regular appearances at James Shoal in the extreme south of the South China Sea–where they removed Malaysian markers and challenged the right of offshore oil rigs there to operate without Beijing’s approval.

All this is within 50 miles of the Malaysian coast and well within Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone . About a third of the Malaysian government’s annual revenue derives from the oil and gas sector–much of it within the EEZ. In July 2014 an oil consortium announced the discovery of a major natural gas field 90 miles off the coast of Sarawak.

The Najib government has responded with a classic hedging strategy. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and Kuala Lumpur has gone out of its way to celebrate a “special relationship” with Beijing. Malaysia has carefully avoided public criticism or confrontation regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea. There have been no Malaysian analogs to Indonesian seizures of Chinese fishing boats or the Philippines’ legal case against China before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.

Kuala Lumpur has earned public praise from Xi Jinping for its “quiet diplomacy approach” and the Malaysian and Chinese militaries have engaged in a growing menu of joint exercises and consultations. But there is little doubt that Najib understands the implications of Chinese ambitions and methods. He also understands the critical importance of the U.S. as a counterweight to China.

Najib once quipped that U.S.-Malaysian defense cooperation was “an all too well-kept-secret.” No longer. During Barack Obama’s 2014 visit to Kuala Lumpur (the first by an American President since Lyndon Johnson) the two governments formally characterized their relationship as a “Comprehensive Partnership.”U.S. Navy ships visit Malaysia regularly and the two militaries maintain a demanding schedule of joint exercises–both bilateral and multilateral. They include jungle training in Malaysia with U.S. Special Forces and Malaysian participation in the largest annual U.S. multilateral exercise in Asia–Cobra Gold in Thailand.

Dozens of Malaysian Armed Forces personnel attend U.S. military educational institutions jointly funded by both governments. Credible reporting indicates that U.S. maritime surveillance aircraft are operating out of a Malaysian Air Force Base on Labuan Island on the southern edge of the South China Sea. Dozens of Malaysian armed forces personnel attend U.S. military educational institutions jointly funded by both governments.

The Malaysian Defense Minister has publicly expressed the hope that the U.S. will help train Malaysian Marines to be stationed at a new base in Sarawak. The two countries navies cooperate in counter-piracy operations in the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden.

U.S. expertise and equipment have been enlisted to assist Malaysia in the long agonizing effort to discover what happened to the Malaysia Airlines flight lost over the southern Pacific. Early this month Malaysia announced a deal for 6 attack helicopters–the largest purchase of U.S. military equipment in 27 years. But perhaps the most graphic evidence of the new tone in the security relationship occurred 3 months ago when news footage showed the US. Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, standing on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier underway in the South China Sea–and standing next to him with a broad smile on his face was Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s Minister of Defence.

About the Author

Marvin Ott is a Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Adjunct Professor, Johns Hopkins University. He can be contacted at Derek Maseloff was a Research Assistant, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a student at Cornell University. He can be contacted at

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Alex Forster, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contact

kpPZSifoT9algOBZ8wikJ1rmf39PDw==” target=”_blank” shape=”rect”>East-West Center | 1601 East-West Road | Honolulu, HI | 808.944.7111

East-West Center in Washington | 1819 L Street, NW, Suite 600 | Washington, DC | 202.293.3995

9 thoughts on “The U.S.-Malaysia Security Connection

  1. Mr Ott and Mr Maseloff forgot to mention our 1PM could be bought. Recent 1MDB’s deal with China illustrates the case.
    Mr Ott and Mr Maseloff also forgot the long partnership of Petronas with Sinopec on oil exploration in Sudan and Ethiopia, when the United Nations has agreed to sanction those nations for their violent genocidal actions on their own people.

  2. Lengthy piece, but what’s the gist? Tiny and weak and (poor) countries like ours and a few others neither have the weapons nor the money nor the manpower to fight with mighty China. Neither is there a need for China is benign, ( at least not hostile). Why do poor countries want to buy very costly fighter planes and ships to fight a war they surely cannot win. ( the obvious reason is the kickback ).

  3. These days it is common for people in Washington to claim that US-Malaysia relations are “broader and deeper” than ever. But when challenged, they are unable to point to anything we are doing today that we were not doing 20 years. The only difference is in the rhetoric. Mahathir loved to bash the United States, even while we were cooperating closely behind the scenes. The rhetoric and attitudes started to change under Badawi, not Najib.

    All of the things that Marvin Ott cites were taking place 20 years ago. US special forces training in Malaysia, US military aircraft overflying Malaysia, US military aircraft being repaired in Malaysia, visits by the US Secretary of Defense and the top military commanders, Malaysian military students at US service academies, port calls by US naval ships (including the first visits by an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine), and intelligence sharing and cooperation on terrorism (including against al-Qaeda).

  4. Alarming at the enormous speed of growth of the rising power economically and militarily, the current power is actively provoking for a fight. The so-called Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea has nothing to do with navigation of commercial ships but the excuse for the freedom of navigation of American war ships in the region. Recent development, the US is succeeding in getting their THAAD system into South Korea, seriously threatening China. The push is coming to shove, and war is getting more likely. It is not easy for small nations in the region to play a balancing act. Damn if you do, and damn if you don’t.

  5. Quote:- “Why do poor countries want to buy very costly fighter planes and ships to fight a war they surely cannot win”

    Not all wars are between Davids and Goliaths, non-biblically speaking.

    Like regulation boxing contests, nations also fight in their own weight divisions. So a standing army is still necessary in case your equally small neighbor covets your water resources, timber, diamonds, even your women.

    At the moment China is intentionally pushing the boundary of the US’s patience and tolerance. If a fight does start, I would expect Russia, North Korea to be on China’s side. Perhaps this gives them some measure of dutch courage.

    In this day and age where gunboat diplomacy should be viewed negatively, I consider China’s claim, however historically tenable according to them, of such a large ill-defined swath of blue Ocean practically camping on someone’s doorstep, as an uncivilized anachronism.

    Other nations have historically claimed lands, islands as their own sovereign territories simply because they could. However what China is doing is, in non-diplomatic terms, plain bullying. If China can justify its actions of just drawing “9 dash Lines” on a piece of paper and say this is all mine whether you like it or not, then what is there to stop the US or Russia from drawing a big circle on a map of our Solar System and say the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, etc, is all theirs simply because they are the ones who could go there?

    China, or rather its present crop of politicians, are drunk with power. They forgot their own ancient wisdom of “the higher a bamboo grows, the lower it bends”

    The “Sick Man of Asia” has now become the “Selfish Man”

  6. Q: I understand internal politics at times dictates foreign policies. Yet, rationally speaking, thinking from the Chinese side, what does it have to gain from the insistance of 9 dash-line?

    1. Oil and mineral? But the cost to build artificial island and to shore it up seems to outweigh benefits from gas.

    2. A fort outside of China to protect the nation, or to extend the nation’s military reach? But, this could be done through diplomacy, learning from US experience. Clearly, there are enough wars in Africa, and Middle East, in which China could help gain a beach head in the name to lending a helping hand to extend peace. As for immediate neighbours, China could easily do an Asian version of Monroe doctrines. Perhaps, it could very well be called Confucian doctrine, to link the weaker states, aka Asean states as an alliance to gain of true independence after a post Neocon America.

    3. China does really want to pick a fight? The world may have under estimated China’s true capability.
    Alas, but why choose a fight so close to home for a far away foe.

    4. China really believe in their story of 9 dash-line?
    Sigh.. hopefully not. Then, China would truly become the monster like the ww2 Japan which she has yet found strength to forgive. Alas, if this were the case, the ghost of imperialistic Japan ww2 war criminals would have the last laugh.

    Perhaps, it is mere miscalculation from Premier Xi’s side to think that 9 dash-line could him politically.

    Sigh.. a grave miscalculation. Perhaps, time has come to see then end of times when Chinese were the most common race walking in this world. 🙇

  7. //:Yet while flagellating U.S. diplomats and political leaders he allowed security relations (defense and intelligence) with Washington to grow and prosper. ///

    Yes, Mahathir was that kind of forked-tongue hypocrite. In public, he attacked the US. In private, he welcomed the US military with open legs.

    When the US were ignobly kicked out of Subic and Clark air base, LKY in his strategic vision offered the US limited access to Singapore’s facilities in order to induce the US to stay engaged in the region. Mahathir went to town demonising Singapore for allowing the US access. Yet, secretly, Malaysia is hosting US military presence. Slimy and slithering serpent Mahathir is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s