The clash of civilisations, Asean and Malaysia’s foreign policy

THE rise of China and India, which is threatening the US’ dominance as the world’s sole superpower, may create a significant economic and political impact on the rest of the world. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the “defeat” of the Soviet Union, with its territories becoming independent countries have solidified the US’ position as the world’s unipolar power.

During the Cold War, the two superpowers put their strength to the test by waging a proxy war against one other on foreign soil. For instance, like the Korean conflict, Indochina war, Hukbalahap Rebellion (Philippines), Malayan Emergency, Cuban Revolution, Algerian War, Suez Crisis (Egypt), Bay of Pigs Invasion (Cuba), Communist insurgency in Thailand, Cambodian Civil War, Soviet–Afghan War, invasion of Grenada and the Afghan civil war, with the nations’ infrastructure and people suffering the most.

In 1993, Samuel P Huntington, a political scientist in the US, debated the “Clash of Civilizations” theory, which would later become the cornerstone of future US foreign policy. This theory was further elaborated in his 1996 book (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order).

As he argued in his article published in Foreign Affairs, ‘It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new [post-Cold-War] world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.’

He stressed that, after the clash of ideologies between capitalism and socialism had ended, eastern civilisations will pose a threat to western civilisations. He emphasised that in order to preserve Western civilisation’s supremacy over others, particularly Sinic civilisation, the West must always have the edge in terms of economic, political and military superiority in world affairs.

For instance, the US and its allies declared war on terrorism based on this theory, which argues that a “new” adversary must be discovered in order to sustain Western civilisation’s hegemony over global issues. The defeat of Al-Qeada, Taliban and Islamic State, together with the killings of its key leaders shifted the Western powers’ attention to other civilisations, particularly China and India.

China’s economic growth, which has surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, and Western countries’ increasing reliance on Chinese-made goods, as well as aggressive investments in blue-chip companies in the West, had alarmed Western leaders resulting in them trying to contain China’s influence in the global arena.

Further, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a brainchild of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and has become the focal point of his administration’s foreign policy. This initiative is a global infrastructure development strategy in which more than 170 countries and organisations are expected to participate. According to silkroadbriefing.com, the BRI’s investments include 1,590 projects valued at US$1.9 tril.

Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda are among the countries that would benefit from this massive Chinese undertaking.

Proxy war

The BRI has been considered a direct threat to the Western powers’ hegemony, led by the US. One of the first actions taken by ex-President Donald Trump was to prohibit US companies from using Huawei networking equipment in 2012.

In 2019, Huawei was added to the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List, effectively banning the company from using US communications networks. The Joe Biden administration is still upholding this Executive Order signed by his predecessor.

China’s dispute with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, in which it had staked claim on South China Sea’s energy wealth as its extended territory. Other nations, with the exception of Taiwan, are members of Asean, which allows them to collectively express their discontent on China’s encroachment.

However, Asean has failed to build a comprehensive response to China’s claims in the South China Sea, according to a recent report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations.

China is Asean’s most important trading partner. However, that cannot be used as a platform for China to impinge on the sovereignty of friendly nations like Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The recent incursion of Chinese military aircraft into Malaysian airspace and the encroachment of a China Coast Guard (CCG) at Beting Patinggi Ali (also known as Luconia Shoals) should never have happened, especially with Malaysia being a close ally of China.

China has been constructing military bases on manmade islands in this disputed area in recent years. Furthermore, the claimed area may have natural resource reserves, as well as huge fishing grounds and a prominent shipping route.

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently criticised China’s claim to the seas around Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and rejected it. He also stated that the international community will not permit China to consider the South China Sea as its territory.

China, on the other hand, has strenuously challenged the US assertions, claiming that the US embroiders the situation in the region in order to cause friction between China and other surrounding coastline countries. Both countries have recently conducted a series of naval manoeuvres that have heightened tensions in the region. Moreover, China’s continuous claim to Taiwan, a close ally of the US, as its territory adds to the tensions between the two giants.

In addition, the ongoing trade war with the US, as well as issues over China’s engagement in territorial conflicts with countries in the region which are considered allies of the US, have caused considerable disquiet.

Malaysia, as an Asean member, must tread carefully in this conflict. Asean is part of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). After the United Nations (UN), this forum is the world’s second largest organisation. The primary goal of this forum is not to support or oppose any superpowers. The Havana Declaration of 1979 stated that the member states’ independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity,

Malaysia needs a clear foreign policy

In a nutshell, as one of Asean’s founding members, Malaysia must play a pivotal part in pressuring the organisation to take a firm and collective approach by declaring our region a non-militarised zone and not to take sides with superpowers in line with NAM’s aspiration.

Nevertheless, if territorial disputes cannot be remedied through bilateral or multilateral negotiations, the parties involved must take their case to an international tribunal such as the International Court of Justice. China’s claims in the region were found to be without any legal backing by an international tribunal in The Hague five years ago. Meanwhile, as demonstrated by France’s, the US’, and China’s recent defeats in Vietnam, superpowers should not underestimate Asean’s endurance and unwavering opposition.

On the other hand, countries with limited military capabilities, such as Malaysia, must understand the geopolitical games played by these superpowers, in which they no longer conduct war within their own borders, with vulnerable third-world countries ending up being pawns for their world hegemony.

Malaysia, as a sovereign nation, must not engage in the proxy conflict initiated by these superpowers, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Furthermore, we must have a clear and cohesive foreign policy which will enable other countries to understand our approaches on matters involving international relations.

Unfortunately, Malaysia’s foreign policy has become more ambiguous and lacking in direction since the administration of former Prime Miniter Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Foreign policy must be concrete and conclusive for other countries to grasp Malaysia’s position on global issues.

As a consequence, I am appealing with the current administration to look into this issue as quickly as possible. This is because drafting a coherent foreign strategy to address the country’s current challenges is an arduous task. – June 19, 2021.

By : R Panier Selvam (A senior lecturer at the Faculty of Business, Economic and Accounting/Institute of Crime and Criminology, HELP University) – FOCUS MALAYSIA

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