Analysts, Opposition MP: Malaysia Skipped US-Led Democracy Summit

Hadi Azmi
2021.12.13
Kuala Lumpur
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Analysts, Opposition MP: Malaysia Skipped US-Led Democracy Summit United States President Joe Biden speaks to representatives of more than 100 countries during the virtual Summit for Democracy, from the White House in Washington, Dec. 9, 2021.
AFP

Analysts and an opposition party MP said Monday that Malaysia chose to stay away from a democracy summit hosted by the U.S. last week because the meeting was seen as anti-China amid vigorous efforts by both superpowers to court Southeast Asian nations.

Purportedly non-aligned Malaysia was one of only three nations in Southeast Asia to be invited to the meeting, which took place ahead of a scheduled visit to Kuala Lumpur by America’s top diplomat later this week. The no-show by Malaysia’s government sends a poor signal about the future direction of its foreign policy, according to the lawmaker and analysts.

“Malaysia made the decision not to participate in this summit,” Ong Kian Ming, an MP with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), said in a statement.

“This is a short-sighted and un-strategic move, which points to a larger lack of coherence and independent thinking in our foreign policy direction moving forward.”

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob should have grasped this opportunity to reiterate Malaysia’s firm commitment to the principles of democracy that have been tested for the past three-and-a-half years, the lawmaker said.

Officials at the Prime Minister’s Office and the foreign ministry did not immediately respond to efforts by BenarNews to confirm whether the government had attended the summit or ignored the invitation from the Biden administration. Nor did the PMO or the ministry issue any statement beforehand about being invited to the summit, or about not attending.

In Washington on Monday, a State Department official told BenarNews to direct its questions to the Malaysian government. 

Only Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines by Washington were invited to participate in the virtual summit hosted by President Joe Biden. The presidents of Indonesia and the Philippines, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Rodrigo Duterte, marked their presence at the meeting attended by officials from more than 100 countries.

Lawmaker Ong Kian, whose party is part of the main opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, said that some could view Malaysia’s absence as kowtowing to a certain power – no doubt, he meant China – in an attempt to keep the balance between the two superpowers.

“Will Malaysia’s lack of participation in this summit be interpreted by some that we are tipping over to one side in this tricky balancing act?” he said.

“Or is this a sign of a directionless government with regards to the complicated area of foreign policy?”

Regional political expert James Chin said that Malaysia decided to stay away from the summit because the U.S. had invited Taiwan but not Beijing.

“Malaysia skipped President Biden’s democracy summit last week because it was widely seen as an anti-China summit,” Chin of the University of Tasmania told BenarNews.

Ong Kian said Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah would likely brush aside his criticism, saying Malaysia could deliver its foreign policy messages during Antony Blinken’s maiden visit to Kuala Lumpur as the U.S. secretary of state on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“But I am sure that Saifuddin is well aware that foreign policy is as much about sending signals about the foreign policy direction of the country in addition to the substantive content that could have been raised by the PM at the Summit for Democracy,” the opposition lawmaker said.

“One area of such signaling is with regards to Malaysia’s hedging strategy vis-à-vis the big players in regional geopolitics in Southeast Asia.”

Sea dispute

Already, many analysts and opposition politicians were stunned when Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he would seek Beijing’s views on AUKUS, a U.S.-United Kingdom-Australia security and defense pact, when it was announced in September. 

In a statement that one analyst criticized as “inappropriate,” Hishammuddin had told the parliament in September: “We need to get the views of the [Chinese] leadership, particularly China’s defense, on what they think of AUKUS and what their action could be.”

AUKUS is thought to be aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea where Beijing has sweeping claims. Malaysia is among other countries that have contending claims in the waterway.

China had denounced the pact, much like it did Biden’s democracy summit.

Malaysia has preferred to maintain a working relationship with China, despite Beijing’s rising assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea, including allegedly in Kuala Lumpur’s territorial waters.

Last year, Kuala Lumpur said that Chinese coastguard and navy ships had intruded into Malaysian waters in the disputed waterway 89 times between 2016 and 2019.

When commenting about AUKUS, the Malaysian minister had said that he would have to “tread carefully” to try and balance the “two major powers” and that was “not any easy thing” to do. 

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