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Malaysia-India Defence Cooperation: A Need for Paradigm Shift before Strategic Partnership

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  • April 26, 2013
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairman: Lt Gen Y M Bammi (Retd)
    External Discussants: Ambassador Preet Mohan Singh Malik and Professor Man Mohini Kaul
    Internal Discussants: Shri Vishal Chandra and Dr Rahul Mishra

    Major Arguments of the Paper: The core argument of this paper is that a paradigm shift is necessary in order to take the defence relationship between Malaysia and India to a higher plane. The author has approached the subject from the Malaysian perspective, and her prescription about paradigm shift relates to the Malaysian state. By paradigm shift she means a change in the mindset of Malaysians in general and the government in particular. The change of mindset here implies that Malaysia should stop viewing India from the old prism of a developing or backward nation.

    The author has traced the genesis of the defence relationship between the two countries to the pre-independence days, when the British Indian forces made important contributions in Malaya. However, Cold-War saw a drift in the relationship. End of the Cold War again brought important changes in the way Malaysia saw defence cooperation with India. Changed geopolitical realities made Malaysia cooperate with India. Malaysia regards its defense and security cooperation with India as vital and highest form of cooperation. The MoU on Defense Cooperation signed in 1993 is the most important mechanism to boost the bilateral cooperation in defence sector between the two countries.

    The author then goes on to explain the depth of the military cooperation by giving details of the cooperation-service wise. The level of interaction is deepest between the navies of the two countries largely because cooperation in Andaman and Malacca Straits maritime area holds vital strategic importance for both Malaysia and India. However, the author has also attached importance to the contribution of the Indian Air Force in maintenance and tactical training of the RMAF. Moreover, Malaysia sees India as a stabilizer in the region.

    The author analysed the discourse on defence cooperation between the two countries under two broad themes:
    i Malaysia-India Defense cooperation is on the right track.
    ii The relationships lacks substance and volume.

    The author subscribes to the latter viewpoint and holds the Malaysian mindset primarily responsible for such a state of affairs. In conclusion she said that Defense MoU signed between the two countries was a major milestone as India was the first country outside the region with which Malaysia signed such an agreement. However, since then progress has been limited. Many items listed in the MoU have not been implemented. The volume of defence cooperation needs to be increased. Malaysia cannot ignore India’s rise and must utilize its capabilities. And for this, the author said, Malaysian perception about India must change.

    Major Points of Discussion and Suggestions to the Author:

    • It will be useful for the author to discuss the military doctrines of both India and Malaysia upfront to set the context for the study. It will also bring out clearly the points of convergence and divergence between the two, which will help in policy prescription.
    • The Andaman Sea touches Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. So, it is one of the potential areas of deeper cooperation between the navies of these countries and Indian Navy.
    • One of the main irritants for India in the relationship is Malaysia’s policy of equating Pakistan with India. Equating India with China is admissible, but not Pakistan.
    • The paper would be enriched if its takes into account the US rebalancing in Asia-Pacific. Since the rebalancing envisages major role for India, it will be worthwhile to dwell upon Malaysia’s stand on it and explore meeting grounds to further the defence cooperation.
    • India’s Look East Policy and interaction with ASEAN led to better appreciation of each other’s position on security issues. For this reason, the Look East Policy merits some attention in the paper.
    • Significantly, it was pointed out that cooperation between the two countries in the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca should not become hostage to the apprehension or fear of the Malaysian authorities, as the need for cooperation on this issue is greater than any apprehension.
    • Author should analyze the reasons for non-implementation of many of the items in the MoU.
    • China is an unreliable partner of ASEAN. It first signs a code of conduct and then violates it. Its aggressive postures vis-à-vis Vietnam bears testimony to this fact.
    • The defence cooperation between India and Malaysia is mainly in the maritime arena. However, it is a fact that the land forces dominate the Malaysian military. It is important therefore, that the cooperation between the two armies intensify.
    • Malaysia’s apprehensions of India arise not because of either the Maldives Ops or the IPKF Ops, but because of the 1998 nuclear tests and the Theatre Command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
    • The China factor should be devoted sufficient attention. The asymmetry that exists between the two countries limits Malaysia’s options vis-à-vis China. It has therefore, adopted the policy of constructive engagement with China, notwithstanding the fact that China is not a natural choice for them. Malaysia’s engagement is mostly economic. However, the China factor also inhibits Malaysia in making faster moves in defence cooperation with India.

    Report prepared by Amit Kumar, Research Assistant, IDSA