India-Malaysia ties on a new high

India and Malaysia signed seven memorandums of understanding (MoUs) covering civil aviation, human resource development, sports, technology sharing, capa­city building, etc during Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit to the country. The two sides also agreed to strengthen their strategic partnership to be able to more effectively tackle common problems like terrorism and extremism. Importantly, the joint statement issued at the end of the Malaysian prime minister’s visit called for the freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the disputed South China Sea (SCS). It may be recalled that the joint statement issued when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kuala Lumpur in 2015 made no mention of the SCS dispute and merely referred to the “mutual interest” of India and Malaysia “in cooperating for peace, prosperity and security of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.” Compared to other SCS litto­rals, Malaysia has been less vocal in asserting its rights in the disputed waters. When Najib visited China last year, the joint statement observed that the involvement of countries “not directly concerned would be counter-productive,” an indirect reference to countries like the United States and India. The joint statement issued in Delhi thus reflects a new willingness on the part of Malaysia to join hands with India in expressing shared concerns over restricted freedom of navigation in the SCS.

The two countries have not always been on the same page. On the Kashmir issue, for instance, Malaysia under Mahathir Mohammed tilted towards Pakistan. That began changing a decade ago. The recent joint statement was far more strident on the question of terrorism than the 2015 statement; it described terrorist attacks as “barbaric” and condemned the glorification of terrorists as “martyrs.” On China-related issues, too, Malaysia has been rather cautious in cooperating with India. The joint statement reflects a shift; India-Malaysia strategic cooperation is moving from superficial to substantial.India and Malaysia have strong historical and cultural bonds; ethnic Indians comprise 8% of the multi-ethnic Malaysia’s population.

Trade and investment are important components of their relationship. Malaysia is India's third largest trading partner among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). India-Malaysia trade was worth $12.8 billion in 2015-16. However, the full potential of the relationship is yet to be tapped. India’s contribution to strengthening the bond has been less than enthusiastic; it is Malaysia that is the more energetic partner. While India’s total investments in Malaysia stand at around $2.5 billion, Malaysian investment here is around $7 billion. Clearly, there is ample scope for India to expand engagement with Malaysia. It must learn from Malaysia’s highly successful de-radicalisation programme too.

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