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  • Malaysia's Resilient (but Ambiguous) Partnership with the United States:The Dilemmas of Smaller States in the Indo-Pacific Era
  • Cheng-Chwee Kuik (bio) and Abdul Razak Ahmad (bio)

Though Malaysia is not a treaty ally of the United States, the two countries have had long-standing, institutionalized, and broad-based cooperation in areas ranging from defense and security, economics, and trade to education, technology, and sociocultural ties, among others. Elevated to a comprehensive partnership in April 2014 during President Barack Obama's historic visit to Malaysia, the bilateral relationship has been a vibrant alignment underpinned by converging interests, albeit also colored by enduring ambiguities. This essay argues that the ambiguities are attributable to historical, domestic, and structural factors, which are likely to continue during the Biden administration and beyond.

These dynamics, which are not entirely unique to Malaysia, reflect the dilemmas faced by smaller states, especially at a time when the growing U.S.-China rivalry generates increasing uncertainty in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region. These dilemmas are already deepening in both military and nonmilitary domains as great-power competition intensifies along both high and low politics, presenting opportunities but also challenges. To ensure a sustainable, mutually beneficial partnership between Malaysia and United States, sources of ambiguity must be acknowledged and addressed, not ignored. The essay concludes by contending that maintaining Malaysia's and other smaller states' strategic autonomy is imperative both bilaterally and regionally. A neutral Southeast Asian region is key to preserving long-term stability and prosperity in Asia, which is in the interest of the United States and other powers. [End Page 86]

Malaysia-U.S. Partnership: A Resilient Alignment

Malaysia's partnership with the United States is an alignment in key attributes. Although this bilateral cooperation is not a formal alliance (i.e., military partnership with mutual defense obligations), it is an interstate partnership driven by converging strategic interests and continuously developed by institutionalized cooperative mechanisms (as opposed to ad hoc arrangements), high-level consultative processes (as opposed to low-level, ceremonial exchanges), and extensive collaboration with aggregated benefits spilling into multiple domains (as opposed to single-domain interactions). These attributes distinguish the partnership from other less institutionalized or less strategic forms of cooperative relations. In May 2002, then Malaysian defense minister Najib Razak—who later became the country's sixth prime minister from 2009 to 2018—described Malaysia-U.S. defense cooperation as an "untold" but "solid success story."1

The Malaysia-U.S. alignment is characterized not only by substantial collaboration in numerous defense and security areas but also by sustained, sizable economic ties and people-to-people exchanges that have developed since Malaya's independence in 1957 and the formation of the modern state of Malaysia in 1963. After the British withdrawal of troops from Southeast Asia in 1971, Prime Minister Tun Razak replaced his predecessor's pro-West policy with nonalignment and regionalism, approaches continued by all subsequent leaders. This "nonaligned" posture notwithstanding, during Mahathir Mohamad's first premiership (1981–2003), Malaysia and the United States forged and institutionalized bilateral defense ties through the Bilateral Training and Consultative Group (BITACG) in 1984 and an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in 1994.2 Since then, Malaysia has gradually developed a substantive defense partnership with the United States, covering consultative engagement, military education and training (most notably through the U.S.-sponsored International Military Education and Training Program), and military exercises (e.g., the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training and the Pacific Partnership).

In the country's inaugural defense white paper in 2020, Malaysia describes its military-to-military ties with the United States as [End Page 87] "long-standing and comprehensive."3 Indeed, over the decades, the partnership has expanded to a host of areas: a strategic consultation forum with the Malaysia-U.S. Strategic Talks (MUSST), counterterrorism, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, cybersecurity, and information sharing, among others. Since 2008, under the Building Partner Capacity Program, which involves the Malaysian Armed Forces and other security agencies, the United States has provided Malaysia with $218 million for maritime domain awareness (MDA), counterterrorism, and other areas of common concern.4 The U.S. Maritime Security Initiative...