Malaysia’s strategic comeback in international relations

Malaysia aims to regain lost international influence by adjusting strategies and forming new alliances to challenge Western dominance 


MALAYSIA is actively seeking to join the BRICS coalition, marking a significant shift in the nation’s foreign policy towards diversifying international alliances and challenging Western dominance. 

Prime Minister (PM) Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim announced on June 18, that formal procedures for membership will commence soon, underscoring Malaysia’s ambition to reassert its influence on the global stage. 

BRICS is the multilateral organisation consisting of five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. 

Formed in 2006, BRICS aims to promote peace, security and development in the global economy, providing a platform for cooperation among these key developing nations. 

The coalition focuses on various areas, including economic growth, political stability and social development, seeking to create a more balanced and multipolar world order. 

This strategic move is part of a broader effort to position Malaysia as a pivotal player in international diplomacy, with its upcoming ASEAN Chairmanship providing an opportunity to lead regional initiatives and enhance economic cooperation. 

Analysts believe that active participation in BRICS could complement these ambitions, showcasing the country’s leadership and diplomatic capabilities. 

The decision to join BRICS also reflects Malaysia’s intention to diversify its economic partnerships. Anwar’s collaboration with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva highlights Malaysia’s commitment to strengthening ties with emerging economies and reducing reliance on Western markets. 

This foreign policy shift comes at a crucial time, as Malaysia seeks to regain the international influence it has lost since 2018 by realigning its strategies and forging new alliances to challenge Western hegemony and advocate for a more balanced and equitable international order. 

Historically Diversified 

Political analyst Rizal Hamdan highlighted that Malaysia’s strategic shift to diversify its international alliances holds considerable significance, influencing its regional and global standing. He pointed out that Malaysia has pursued such diversification since the late Tunku Abdul Rahman’s premiership. 

To name a few examples, he said Malaysia initiated alliances among like-minded countries in South-East Asia with the formation of ASEAN in 1967 and among Muslim countries with the establishment of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in 1969. Malaysia also chose not to join the US-sponsored South-East Asia Treaty Organisation. 

“As a middle-power country, we always hedge our bet within the major powers’ rivalry,” Rizal told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR). 

Rizal said BRICS philosophy is “in parallel” with Anwar’s aspiration for global south mutual cooperation particularly in exploring the de-dollarisation approach in international trade. 

He said every PM wants to stand out in foreign policy approaches to seal their legacy. As other international coalitions that Malaysia has joined have been ineffective, a new approach should be leveraged. 

“Therefore, BRICS is the new incarnation of effective international organisations that cooperate not only in trade and investment but also have leverage of membership by emerging markets.

Rizal says Malaysia has a record of condemning any morally wrong actions in the international forum

“In the world of multipolarity, being a member of this bloc is important to ensure one’s survival and bargaining power. Hence, Malaysia will not let that opportunity go to waste,” he said, adding that the combined GDP of BRICS totals US$25.85 trillion (RM121.4 trillion). 

While Malaysia has never intended to challenge major powers, it remains independent and will always make its voice heard, especially in the chaotic world of multipolar diplomacy. 

“After all, we are a sovereign country. The most effective way to make our voice heard is by joining and actively participating in multilateral organisations like BRICS.

“We have a record of speaking out what is right and condemning any morally wrong actions in the international forum,” Rizal added.

ASEAN Leadership

Meanwhile, for Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research senior fellow Dr Azmi Hassan, Malaysia’s neutral approach in its international relation is always advantageous for the country.

He said Malaysia’s stature would be elevated further as it assumes the ASEAN chairmanship in 2025. This role will not only guide the region, which includes countries with varying alignments of relationships, but also satisfy ASEAN partners such as China, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

“I believe as chair, we will steer ASEAN to maintain a very neutral stance. When it comes to trade, Malaysia will endeavour to minimise geopolitical factors as much as possible,” he told TMR.

Economist Assoc Prof Dr Mazlan Ali said Malaysia’s shift in foreign policy is likely to benefit the country, given today’s global landscape with a balance of power involving emerging political and economic forces like China and Russia, alongside the West.

He noted Malaysia’s good reputation, particularly in South-East Asia, which bodes well as the country prepares to chair the region next year.

“He added that under Anwar’s administration, Malaysia has achieved greater recognition globally due to its mature and adaptable foreign policy, as demonstrated by its assertiveness towards Western hegemony.

“Malaysia’s assertiveness towards Western hegemony garners respect from other countries.

“At the same time, Malaysia maintains positive relations with the Western bloc and other nations. This approach will create better opportunities for Malaysia to explore economic prospects, such as in the palm oil and other sectors,” Mazlan added.

On the contrary, political analyst Dr Oh Ei Sun argued that Malaysia’s shift in foreign policy towards diversifying international alliances may not have as significant an impact on its regional and global standing as perceived. He suggested that while diversification is important, Malaysia’s overall influence and position in the international arena might not change drastically due to this shift.

Historically, Malaysia has never been a major diplomatic power on the world stage and has only exerted marginal influence regionally.

“It cannot match the diplomatic status of countries like Singapore or Indonesia.”

Therefore, the notion that Malaysia’s foreign policy could greatly impact its regional and global standing is somewhat exaggerated. Malaysia’s influence in these arenas has always been limited, so shifts in its alliances or affiliations do not have a major impact.

“This, though harsh is a reality. Like many South-East Asian countries, Malaysia adjusts its alliances based on current national interests. Presently, Malaysia needs substantial trade and foreign investments, which is why it is aligning more with China, its largest foreign investor and trading partner,” added Oh.

According to Oh, Malaysia needs substantial trade and foreign investments, which is why it is aligning more with China

The key factors contributing to Malaysia’s loss of influence on the international stage since 2018 include an overly narrow diplomatic focus and misaligned strategic alliances. 

To enhance its diplomatic standing, Malaysia must recognise that the West remains a predominant global power and should collaborate closely with Western nations. 

Aligning too closely with China and Russia could be counterproductive, Oh said, suggesting that Malaysia should capitalise on the West’s relocation of factories from China to attract high-tech, high-quality investments. 

While China’s investment is important, Malaysia’s current diplomatic stance, particularly its unnecessary focus on the Israel-Hamas conflict and close association with Hamas, can deter American companies from investing. 

“Realistically, Malaysia should focus on developing its economy by welcoming Chinese investments while actively pursuing high-quality investments from the West, as countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore do. 

According to Oh, Malaysia needs substantial trade and foreign investments, which is why it is aligning more with China 

“Avoiding unnecessary diplomatic posturing regarding Hamas will improve relationships with potential Western investors and contribute to a successful international comeback,” said Oh. 

Nevertheless, stable political leadership is crucial for maintaining an international presence. Since 2018, Malaysia’s domestic political instability has hindered its active participation in international forums. However, the situation has shown improvement since 2022, presenting Malaysia with an opportunity to reestablish itself as a significant member of the international community. 

Concurrently, despite a potential downward trend in Malaysia’s efforts to reclaim its international influence, Azmi believes that the PM’s passion for foreign policy and international issues has driven the decision to join BRICS. 

“By joining, our voice will be amplified and heard, positioning BRICS as an alternative platform rather than a challenger to established organisations like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, or Group of Seven. 

“This move will enhance our status on the international stage,” he said. 

Chinese Premier’s Visit to Malaysia

Last week witnessed a historic visit by China’s Premier Li Qiang during his official trip to Malaysia, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. 

In the 1970s, former PM Tun Abdul Razak Hussein forged a pioneering path in relations with China, navigating the challenges of the Cold War era when China maintained its “Iron Curtain.” 

He led Malaysia to sign a joint communique to establish ties with China on May 31, 1974. 

In a business luncheon during the visit, Anwar rejected the notion that China’s dominance should be feared, describing China as a “true friend.” While the leaders addressed some contentious bilateral issues, Anwar emphasised that they discussed them as “equal partners, as trusted friends”. 

“People say, ‘Well, Malaysia is a growing economy. Don’t let China abuse its privilege and extort from the country.’ I said no. To the contrary, we want to benefit from one another, we want to learn from one another, and we want to profit from this engagement,” Anwar told some 200 business leaders at a luncheon attended by Li. 

Anwar (right) and Li at the groundbreaking ceremony for the ECRL Integrated Terminal in Gombak on June 19 (source: PM’s Office)

There were some prickly issues regarding overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, as well as the issue of recognising Taiwan. 

Meanwhile, Li promised that China will continue to work with Malaysia to advance their friendship and bilateral relations for mutual benefit and a brighter future for both nations. 

Speaking at a dinner commemorating the 50th anniversary of Malaysia-China bilateral relations, Li described the relationship as a fine example of regional cooperation. 

He emphasised this milestone as a new starting point for both nations to chart a stronger and more prosperous shared future together. 

China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 15 consecutive years since 2009, with total trade in 2023 totalling RM451 billion. 

“Be it in the past, present, or future, friendship remains the defining feature of China-Malaysia relations. We have brought this relationship to a new starting point and we share the aspiration to carry it forward to future generations,” he said at the dinner, which was attended by Anwar and other Malaysian leaders. 

However, there were also concerns, with several individuals close to Anwar’s team noting hiccups on the matter, as originally, they wanted China’s President Xi Jinping to visit. 

Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, conveyed Malaysia’s wish to invite Xi to Malaysia during his courtesy call on Li, who had visited Malaysia 11 years ago. 

China has made substantial investments in Malaysia, particularly through involvement in major infrastructure projects. Notably, these include the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a significant railway project aimed at enhancing transportation connectivity along Malaysia’s east coast. Additionally, China has been actively engaged in the Forest City project located in Johor, a large-scale development featuring residential, commercial and recreational components aimed at attracting local and international investment. 

These projects represent China’s strategic efforts to contribute to Malaysia’s economic development and infrastructure enhancement, fostering closer bilateral ties through substantial investments in key sectors. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition