India-Malaysia: Moving forward together
Author - Rahul Mishra, principal investigator, Indo-Pacific Research and outreach programme and coordinator, European Studies Programme, Universiti Malaya.
Zambry Abdul Kadir, the minister of foreign affairs of Malaysia, is on a two-day official visit to India on November 6-7, 2023. He will co-chair the 6th India-Malaysia Joint Commission Meeting (JCM) today in New Delhi.
Repeatedly re-scheduled for a number of domestic and international constraints including Covid-19 and recent floods, the JCM is aimed at reviewing a range of issues of mutual interest and shared concern, which include a stocktaking of the India-Malaysia Enhanced Strategic Partnership cutting across politico-diplomatic, strategic-defence, and trade-economic issues. The two sides are also expected to mull over possibilities of greater cooperation in science and technology, tourism and cultural cooperation as well. Of course, the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine crises will also figure in Zambry's consultations with S Jaishankar, the external affairs minister.
India-Malaysia partnership is one of the long-standing and time-tested partnerships that India has in the Southeast Asian region. With deep economic and trade stakes, and presence of the largest Indian diaspora in Southeast Asia, it is undoubtedly one of the strongest relationships in India’s Eastward engagement. Approximately 2.5 million Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs), live in Malaysia, which makes them the second largest PIO community in the world after the United States.
Much before India’s Look East and Act East policies came into existence, India and Malaysia stood together as friends and partners in times of crises including Konfrantasi, and India’s wars in 1962, 1965, and 1971.
Even in terms of trade, Malaysia is one of the key partners for India. Malaysia is the 13th largest trade partner of India while India is among the top ten trade partners for Malaysia. "India-Malaysia bilateral trade, which has reached $19.4 billion (RM85.60 billion) in the financial year 2021 to 2022. With both countries showing keen interest in investing in bilateral trade ties, the trajectory is only likely to make an upward swift. Two recent agreements are important in that regard: the decision to allow trade between Indian and Malaysian businesses using the Indian Rupee; and, a Bengaluru-based payment gateway Razorpay launching its operations in Malaysia through its subsidiary Curlec.
These small and wonderful changes have the potential to not only upscale India-Malaysia trade but it will also make life easier for Indian travellers visiting Malaysia. Important advances have been made in technical cooperation and higher education sector as well. Greater synergies between the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme (MTCP) and the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC), and signing of a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) between the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and JNU, India to establish a chair of Malay Civilisation Studies at JNU, India are important steps in that regard. Establishing an India chair in one of the Malaysian universities is yet to materialise though.
Traditionally, Malaysian students have always flocked to India for higher education course in engineering and medical sciences. With efforts to set up Manipal university and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campuses in Malaysia, India has made commendable attempts to engage the Malaysian youth in its centres of higher learning. Nevertheless, more systematic efforts could be made to attract social sciences students to pursue graduate and post-graduate courses at leading centres of social sciences such as Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The year 2022 marked a significant milestone in India-Malaysia relations as all three branches of the Indian armed forces - the army, navy, and air force - conducted bilateral joint exercises, demonstrating a deepening of defence cooperation between the two nations.
Despite occasional bumps in the relationship, India and Malaysia have managed to navigate these challenges through diplomatic finesse. Both countries recognise the importance of addressing shared regional and global challenges together.
With the evolving Indo-Pacific regional order, India-Malaysia ties have gained newfound significance. Malaysia, as the fifth-largest economy in Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair for 2025, plays a pivotal role in bridging India and ASEAN while providing a strong foundation for further cooperation in Indo-Pacific strategies.
Both Malaysia and India are committed to upholding ASEAN centrality in the region, evident in their support for ASEAN's Indo-Pacific Outlook (AOIP) and India's Indo-Pacific Initiative (IPOI). Recent upgrades from a strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership highlight their efforts to balance respective interests and foster cooperation in Indo-Pacific strategies.
India's role in shaping the Indo-Pacific regional order is growing, with a commitment to inclusive principles and support for ASEAN centrality, aligning with Malaysia's foreign policy stance against superpower rivalries in the region. The strongest motivation for both New Delhi and Putrajaya has been the realisation that both these countries are facing numerous shared regional and global challenges.
To maintain ASEAN's centrality in the region and promote cooperation between AOIP and IPOI, ASEAN may consider expanding the Indo-Pacific concept to include more small and middle powers of the region in its dialogue mechanism. Strengthening cooperation with small nations can foster consensus on an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region while amplifying ASEAN's influence.
Malaysia can play a pivotal role in fostering understanding, trust, and cooperation among ASEAN, India, and Malaysia. However, the success of such cooperation depends on all three parties sharing common goals and working collectively.
With over 30 years of institutional partnership between ASEAN and India and centuries of close ties between Malaysia and India, there is optimism that their Indo-Pacific strategies can contribute to constructing a peaceful, prosperous, and shared Indo-Pacific region with ASEAN at its core and Malaysia playing a crucial role. This partnership not only strengthens regional stability but also underscores the importance of multilateral cooperation in addressing global challenges.
Author: Rahul Mishra, principal investigator, Indo-Pacific Research and outreach programme and coordinator, European Studies Programme, Asia-Europe Institute, Universiti Malaya, Malaysia.