Issues & Insights Vol. 23, SR7 – Southeast Asia’s Clean Energy Transition: A Role for Nuclear Power?

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About the Volume

To bring clarity on these developments and their implications in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Forum commissioned several Southeast Asian scholars to write analytical papers on the energy transition that is underway in the region, which are compiled in this volume. Each chapter looks at the current and possible future energy landscape of a specific Southeast Asian country and focuses especially on the place and role of nuclear power in it. This “nuclear focus” is important because, for decades, most Southeast Asian countries have expressed on-and-off interest in nuclear power but never brought it online. Interest is now picking up again, especially for SMRs, so if this time one or several Southeast Asian countries successfully went nuclear, it would be a first.

It is good timing, therefore, to devote attention to how Southeast Asian countries are thinking about nuclear power in today’s context, for multiple reasons, including those related to safety, security, and safeguards.

Download the full volume here.


Table of Contents

Executive Summary

David Santoro & Carl Baker

Chapter 1 | Indonesia Power Sector

Elrika Hamdi 

Chapter 2 | Malaysia Energy Landscape and Requirements 2022-2050

Sabar Hashim

Chapter 3 | Myanmar’s Energy Landscape

Shwe Yee Oo

Chapter 4 | Re-Energizing the Philippines’ Nuclear Power Program: Opportunities and Challenges

Julius Cesar Trajanao

Chapter 5 | Singapore’s Energy Journey: Net-Zeo, New Perspectives, & Nuclear?

Denise Cheong & Victor Nian

Chapter 6 | Thailand’s Energy Landscape and the Potential Role and Place of Nuclear Technology

Doongnyapong Wongsawaeng

Chapter 7 | Energy Landscape and Requirements of Vietnam

Nguyen Nhi Dien

Issues & Insights Vol. 23, SR6 – Pressing Security Concerns in Southeast Asia: Next-Generation Perspectives

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Introduction

Southeast Asia is a pivotal sub-region of the Indo-Pacific. Spanning 1,700,000 square miles, its total population is 676 million – around 8.5% of the world’s population – and has a collective GDP of US$3.67 trillion (as of 2022). Over the years, it has been associated with both economic dynamism and significant security challenges. As authors in this volume note, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, disagreements over water rights in the Mekong Delta, and the current conflict in Myanmar highlight fault lines not only between Southeast Asian states themselves, but also between great powers such as China and the United States. There are many more – the EU, India, Japan, Australia, and South Korea – that pay close attention to developments in the sub-region. Maintaining peace and stability in a region that plays host to one-third of global sea-borne trade, hosts major undersea internet cables, and is a major thoroughfare for energy supplies from the Middle East to the advanced manufacturing hubs in China, Japan, and South Korea is both challenging and complicated.

The primary mechanism for engagement with the individual countries in Southeast Asia has been through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its attendant bodies, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM). Meanwhile, ASEAN member states have promoted the principle of “ASEAN centrality” as a means to prevent major power interference in the sub-region and to retain influence over security cooperation within Southeast Asia and beyond. As a result, the acknowledgement of ASEAN centrality has become a “boilerplate” for strategy and policy documents related to regional security. One example of this is the inclusion of the principle in the 2021 U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. However, the increasingly pressing nature of challenges confronting the broader region, their speed and intensity, are beginning to outpace the evolution of institutions and processes associated with ASEAN.

The ASEAN Way – an emphasis on informal consultation, non-interference, and consensus as the basis of major decisions – has been integral to creating internal cohesion and harmony within ASEAN decision-making and is an enabler of socio-political integration. On the other hand, it has also stymied efforts to develop effective collective responses to conflicts and has made ASEAN hostage to great powers able to use their influence over members to break consensus. While defenders of ASEAN point to its successes and remain confident that it will adapt to regional issues over time, others are increasingly skeptical that ASEAN can retain its status as the gatekeeper of regional security agenda.

It is in this context that Pacific Forum carried out this extended study with support from the Luce Foundation to investigate Southeast Asian perspectives on the “biggest threats or most pressing security issues, now and in the foreseeable future.” We asked a group of our Southeast Asian cohort of Young Leaders (ages 21 to 35), what problems were most pressing to them, and asked them how they thought their countries should address these issues, noting which third-parties would be most important for them to leverage in doing so. We believe this publication, which cuts across a broad range of security issues, is a fair representation of the eclecticism and diversity that characterize the region itself and hope that our readers will find them as useful as we have here at Pacific Forum.

The collection starts with traditional security issues and then moves to more non-traditional security issues, though this does not reflect any internal emphasis or prioritization on the part of the editors. The first essay, by Siu Tzyy Wei, is entitled “Caught in the Middle: The Measured Voice of Brunei’s Foreign Policy Amidst the South China Sea Dispute.” Beginning with the South China Sea is appropriate for any collective study on the region, but Brunei’s position as a “silent claimant” presents a perspective not often heard. The author’s assertion that it is China and external powers – AUKUS and the Quad are mentioned – that are adding pressure to the South China Sea and adding a dangerous complexity, compelling Brunei’s “neutrality,” a striking claim given the threat to Bruneian sovereignty. The second essay moves to another flashpoint, the political crisis in Myanmar; a national issue that has reverberated around ASEAN as well as further abroad in Washington and Brussels. Appropriately titled “The Coming of the Raging Fire: The Revolution in Myanmar,” Thiha Wint Aung analyzes the lead-up to the political crisis and concludes by calling for the international community to explicitly support the people’s “armed resistance” against the military. The third essay presents a bold national case for a region-wide issue: dealing with rising Chinese influence. In “Malaysia’s China Policy Amid China’s Growing Security Concerns,” Fikry A. Rahman argues that Malaysian policy elites will have to prioritize strategic concerns over economic ties vis-a-vis China if it is to adequately defend Malaysian sovereignty.

The next group of essays focuses on non-traditional security issues, beginning with climate change, one of the most pressing global issues. Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as noted in the fourth essay, “When it Rains, it Pours: Disaster Displacement and the Future of Human Security in the Philippines Amid Changing Climate.” Katrina Guanio calls for policymakers to be aware of gradual or even sudden human migrations due to inclement weather, such as typhoons, and the impact these have on national health, economic, and security dynamics. Taking an unusual and unique perspective, the fifth essay, “Climate Maladaptation: Migration, Food Insecurity, and the Politics of Climate Change in Timor-Leste” by Ariel Mota Alves, makes the provocative argument that international organizations can sometimes promote detrimental Western development narratives that undermine local solutions to local climate change effects. The sixth essay, “Human Trafficking in Vietnam: A Top-Tier Non-Traditional Security Threat in the 21st Century” by Thu Nguyen Hoang Anh, measures the impact of the scourge of human trafficking in Vietnam and offers practical policy solutions to mitigating its impact on victims. Finally, the seventh essay, by Attawat Assavanadda, looks at “Thailand’s Brain Drain Challenge: Trends and Implications,” noting the push-pull drivers of the phenomenon and its impact on Thailand’s overall development.

As one can see from this summary, the range of topics chosen by our talented Young Leader cohort from Southeast Asia is as diverse, inspiring, and multidimensional as the region itself. Ranging from security issues that are well covered by regional and international media to those that take an eclectic look at local variations of international issues, we are pleased to showcase these essays. As ever, the mission of Pacific Forum only begins with the creation of such young leader cohorts, and empowering them to present their analyses and recommendations should only be a prelude to robust regional conversations and discussions. We have been since our creation – a forum for those discussions – and hope that our readers will take that engaging approach to these essays and their authors.

Dr. John Hemmings
Senior Director, Pacific Forum
Honolulu, Hawaii

Click here to download the full report.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Caught in the Middle: The Measured Voice of Brunei’s Foreign Policy Amidst the South China Sea Disputes | Siu Tzyy Wei
Chapter 2: The Coming of the Raging Fire: The Revolution in Myanmar | Thiha Wint Aung
Chapter 3: Malaysia’s China Policy Amid China’s Growing Security Concerns | Fikry A. Rahman
Chapter 4: When it Rains, it Pours: Disaster Displacement and the Future of Human Security in the Philippines Amid Changing Climate | Katrina Guanio
Chapter 5: Climate Maladaptation: Migration, Food Insecurity, and the Politics of Climate Change in Timor-Leste | Ariel Mota Alves
Chapter 6: Human Trafficking in Vietnam: A Top-Tier Non-traditional Security Threat in the 21st century | Thu Nguyen Hoang Anh
Chapter 7: Thailand’s Brain Drain Challenge: Trends and Implications | Attawat Joseph Ma Assavanadda


About the Authors

Ariel Mota Alves is a Timorese student currently pursuing a PhD in Political Science with a Graduate Certificate in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His research focuses on the environmental changes in Southeast Asia and Timor-Leste. Ariel is a research intern and student affiliate at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

Attawat Joseph Ma Assavanadda is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program. His research interests are International Relations and Security in the Asia Pacific, with a particular focus on China-Southeast Asia relations. He obtained his MA in International Relations (International Security Specialization) from Waseda University where he was awarded the Japanese Government “MEXT” Scholarship. He previously worked as a political analyst at Government House of Thailand and a research assistant (master’s level) at the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG).

Fikry A. Rahman is the Head of Foreign Affairs at Bait Al Amanah, a political and development research institute based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His research interests include Southeast Asian regionalism, smaller states’ strategies, the politics and geopolitics of digital connectivity cooperation, maritime security, and Malaysian domestic politics and foreign policy. He was also part of Princeton University’s research project on the Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia, and was thoroughly involved with Malaysian universities on the BRI research projects. His insights have been featured in The Diplomat, Nikkei Asia, New Straits Times, and BenarNews.

Katrina R. Guanio is a Senior Project Officer at UP – Centre International de Formation des Autorités et Leaders or the International Training Centre for Authorities and Leaders (UP-CIFAL Philippines). She works on research studies and projects on migration, gender equality, and sustainable development. Previously, she worked with the Economist Intelligence Unit for the local migration governance indicators of the International Organization for Migration. She is completing her Master’s in Population Studies at the University of the Philippines Population Institute.

Siu Tzyy Wei is a Research Associate at the Global Awareness and Impact Alliance (GAIA). With an aim to develop a deeper understanding of how national factors can evolve and threaten the international system and vice versa, Wei’s research interests lie mainly in the politics and maritime security issues of Southeast Asia. Currently holding a Bachelor of Arts (Honors) in Sociology and Anthropology from Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Wei’s work has been featured in Fair Observer and CSIS Indonesia.

Thiha Wint Aung is an independent political analyst from Myanmar. He received Master of Arts in Political Science from Central European University (CEU) in 2022 and Master of Public Policy from National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in 2020. He formerly worked as Senior Program Manager in Forum of Federations, an INGO providing technical support on federalism and decentralization to various stakeholders in Myanmar. His interests are in social movements, social networks, digital humanities, and Southeast Asia politics.

Thu Nguyen Hoang Anh is a graduate student at European University Institute majoring in Transnational Governance. Previously, she was an intern at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). She was also a senior research fellow and head of the Southeast Asia Research Group at the Vanguard Think Tank. Her research interests include Vietnamese politics, Asian security, and public policy.

PacNet #41 – ASEAN unity and the Russia-Ukraine crisis

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Dato Lim, ASEAN’s former secretary general, recently admitted that ASEAN’s ability to function effectively depends on the capability of its members to align their national interests with regional imperatives. Given the diversity within and between its member states, preserving unity has been a core objective since the organization’s inception.

For example, the 1967 Bangkok declaration—the organization’s founding document—emphasized regional cooperation and strengthening existing bonds of regional solidarity. The 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation reiterated these sentiments. In the aftermath of the 2012 Bali Concords II, however, ASEAN set out to create a “cohesive, resilient and integrated ASEAN community” with a “common regional identity.” This drive toward unity was accentuated through the ASEAN Regional Community Vision of 2025, with its target of “one identity and one community” adhering to “shared values and norms.”

Even so, disunity persists. The crisis of Myanmar, for example: In April 2021, two months after the junta took power in a coup, ASEAN forwarded a five-point consensus on the crisis. Violence continues to escalate, however, generating vocal international criticism toward ASEAN’s slow response. While Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have been largely more critical of the junta’s actions, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have remained taciturn.

Global issues have similarly failed to engender regional consensus. The Russia-Ukraine war is a notable example. ASEAN responses, in terms of policy documents and statements, to the events since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 have been relatively muted. A 2014 joint EU-ASEAN statement following the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, condemned the act and called on all parties to stop the violence. The organization also addressed the situation in Ukraine at the foreign ministers’ level, but interestingly, only after 2022.

On Feb. 26, 2022, March 3, 2022, and April 8, 2022, ASEAN foreign ministers issued statements on the conflict. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was referred to as “hostilities” taking place in Ukraine. Instead of calling on Russia to withdraw from its occupation of Ukrainian territory in contravention to international law, the statements only called for “an immediate ceasefire or armistice” followed by “political dialogues that would lead to sustainable peace in Ukraine.”

Singapore and Laos represent contrasting perspectives. A 2023 survey conducted by Singapore’s Yusof Ishak Institute shows that only 14% of respondents from Laos are “very concerned” about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, compared to over 50% of respondents from Singapore. A 2020 survey asking “Who would you consider your country’s preferred strategic partner if the United States was unreliable” found that 33% of respondents in Laos considered Russia a suitable partner, while less than 1% felt the same way in Singapore. Differing sentiments toward Russia and, more importantly, how each nation frames the conflict, weakens efforts at unity.

ASEAN unity in praxis—voting in the UNGA

From 2014 to February 2023 there were 11 General Assembly resolutions on the Ukrainian crisis. In each, barring one (A/RES/68/262), all 10 ASEAN nations expressed their vote. The trajectories of voting patterns demonstrates the absence of a united position in the organization.

Source: Author’s data, based on United Nations General Assembly Voting Records.

As this graph makes evident, most of ASEAN abstained on resolutions concerning the Ukraine War. Brunei and Vietnam, for example, have consistently abstained on UNGA resolutions. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, initially in favor, shifted to abstaining in each subsequent resolution. Singapore is the only ASEAN country that has voted in favor of UNGA resolutions on the subject on more than one occasion. Even so, it has not consistently voted in favor of resolutions. Laos, in contrast, has either abstained or voted against resolutions on the Ukrainian crisis.

Laos and Singapore on the Ukrainian Crisis 

To delve deeper, let’s explore the voting patterns of Laos and Singapore, the two countries that show the greatest divergence among ASEAN nations. While Singapore has proven most willing among all ASEAN nations to support UNGA resolutions on the Ukraine war, Laos (except for A/RES/68/262, where it did not vote) has consistently voted against.

A/RES/73/194, a resolution adopted on Dec. 17, 2018, is the point where this divergence begins. The resolution directly addressed hostilities taking place in the region and condemned Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory. It also urged the Russian federation “as the occupying power” to withdraw its forces without delay. Examining the resolution reveals three recurring points of contention between Singapore and Laos. This relates to Article 1, Article 5, and Article 8. Each of these articles are repeated in the resolutions of the next General Assembly session (not the next resolution) and in each case Singapore and Laos adopted starkly differing positions, with one voting in favor and the other voting against. Article 1 focuses on Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty by launching an attack on Ukraine.

Article 5 points out the unjustified nature of Russian action in Ukraine, i.e., that it is in violation of international law. Article 8, meanwhile, classifies Russia as an “occupying power” and directs our attention to the importance of it ending its “occupation of Ukraine’s territory.” As a result of these three clauses, and more specifically, the framing of Russia’s actions in these clauses, we see a significant divergence in the positions of Singapore and Laos.

A/RES/73/263, a UNGA resolution adopted five days later, does not include these three articles. Consequently, Laos and Singapore abstained. In A/RES/74/17 we witness the divergence once more, as it contains the three articles noted in A/RES/73/194. A/RES/74/17 was passed in 2019, a year after A/RES/73/194. By then the two nations had begun disengaging forces in Zolote and Petrovske (in Eastern Ukraine) and conducted Normandy Format Meetings – an informal meeting between French, German, Russian and Ukrainian diplomats.

Even so, the positions of Singapore and Laos remained unchanged as reflected by their voting pattern. Whenever UNGA resolutions discuss Russia’s actions as a violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity, note that Russia’s actions are unjustified (and therefore contravene international law), and classify Russia as an occupying power which should withdraw from Ukrainian territory, Laos votes against it while Singapore votes in favor.

This pattern between Singapore and Laos shows the latter’s disregard for the gravity of Russia’s actions. Moreover, it also explains why ASEAN foreign minister meetings did not classify Russia as an “occupying power” in violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity or even mention Russia in any statements.

Laos’ position may have a direct correlation with its economic crisis. According to its statistics bureau inflation hit a 22-year high in 2022 which eroded the population’s purchasing power. The nation also struggles to acquire sufficient foreign currency for its imports which has caused fuel shortages. In May 2022, the government stated that it would look for cheaper fuel sources instead of relying solely on China, Thailand, Vietnam and other nearby nations. Russian gas, meanwhile, is 70% cheaper than other international suppliers which will most likely draw Laos towards Moscow. Laos’ economic dependence on China might also induce it to welcome stronger ties with Russia; thereby diversifying its foreign relations and enhancing its strategic position through “mutual checks and balances among its partners.” At the outbreak of hostilities between Ukraine and Russia, Laos’ Foreign Ministry only stated that it will follow the “evolving, complex and sensitive” situation in the region and called upon all parties to “exercise utmost restraint.” Vientiane also conducted joint bilateral military drills with Moscow as recently as November 2022.

Accordingly, the fact that ASEAN members cannot agree on who violated international law in the Ukraine conflict casts doubt on the organization’s commitment to a “rules-based” international order. Moreover, if members cannot agree on violations taking place in Eastern Europe, thousands of miles from Southeast Asia, its inability to deal with contentious issues closer to home should be expected.

Conclusion

This is a problem because ASEAN Centrality presupposes unity. If ASEAN hopes to be at the center of the region’s security and economic architecture, the organization must not only adopt a proactive role on regional issues, but also maintain unity and a sense of cohesion on framing regional and global issues. That ASEAN members cannot adopt a common position on a conflict in Eastern Europe casts doubt on its ability to guarantee centrality. The absence of “ASEAN Centrality” could also further enable the establishment of new minilateral initiatives such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS to exert a greater role in shaping security developments in Southeast Asia and the wider Indian Ocean region.

A first step to greater unity would be enhancing cooperation among ASEAN states. Wealthier ASEAN countries should seek to help those, like Laos, in a more precarious financial position reduce its dependence on external actors such as Russia.. Given Laos’ financial position other ASEAN nations should provide economic assistance to Vientiane and thereby reduce its dependence on external actors such as Russia. Regular bilateral meetings alone are insufficient to promote unity—one nation’s difficulties must be viewed as the entire region’s problem. If the ASEAN nations perceived challenges from this perspective the probability that disunity persists on international issues such as the Ukraine-Russia conflict would decline significantly.

Shakthi De Silva ([email protected]) serves as a Visiting Lecturer in International Relations for tertiary-level institutes in Sri Lanka. His most recent publications include a chapter on the securitization policies adopted by Gulf States and South Asia in the book ‘Regional Security in South Asia and the Gulf’ (2023) published by the Taylor and Francis Group (Routledge).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Photo: ASEAN Summit 2023 May 10, 2023 in Indonesia by CNN Philippines Staff/Southeast Asia News today/Sekretariat Presiden YouTube.  

PacNet #54 – What AUKUS means for Malaysia’s technological future

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When the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced their new trilateral security partnership, AUKUS, on Sept. 15, Malaysia’s prime minister released a statement expressing concern about its impact on stability in Southeast Asia. Malaysia’s minister of foreign affairs and minister of defense separately issued a statement in support of the prime minister’s position, underscoring the risks of a conventional and nuclear arms race, particularly in the South China Sea.

These statements are worth parsing out. At the outset, however, it is important to note that despite Malaysia’s reservations about AUKUS, the government has continued to welcome deeper relations with all three countries in the pact, bilaterally and through multilateral platforms such as the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA). What’s more, nuclear-powered submarines are only a piece of AUKUS. Of greater significance to Malaysia, and the rest of Southeast Asia, is the longer technological arc of AUKUS, which will reshape the regional strategic landscape.

The nuclear objection

Although uneasiness about AUKUS was downplayed as overhype or strategic naiveté, Putrajaya’s position is an assertion of Malaysia’s long-standing foreign policy. The underpinnings of AUKUS bring to bear Malaysia’s stance on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, non-alignment, as well as its management of the South China Sea dispute all at once.

Some may have interpreted Prime Minister Ismail Sabri’s statement that AUKUS could trigger a regional nuclear arms race as misunderstanding the nature of the deal. AUKUS, of course, involves nuclear-powered—rather than nuclear-armed—submarines. However, AUKUS marks the first time a non-nuclear weapon state would receive nuclear-powered submarines and, therefore, this raises uncertainties about proliferation and international legal safeguards. These questions, although distant for now, remain deeply unsettling for Malaysia given its position vis-à-vis the international nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regimes. For example, Malaysia has tabled a United Nations resolution every year since the 1996 International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. The resolution underscores the ICJ’s call for nuclear disarmament “in all aspects under strict and effective international control.” Since AUKUS exploits a loophole in existing nuclear safeguards regimes, Malaysia believes that there is a risk that this will undermine the disarmament goal.

But even if Malaysia’s nonproliferation concerns with AUKUS may be misplaced, Putrajaya is not alone in fearing that it will trigger a conventional arms race among the major powers in Southeast Asia’s backyard—specifically, in the South China Sea. In looking at AUKUS, Indonesia’s foreign ministry, for instance, voiced “deep concern” over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region. Even Singapore and Vietnam, which are often described in the media as welcoming of AUKUS, gave carefully crafted responses that suggest they are cautious. Both states stress the importance of regional peace, stability, cooperation, and prosperity.

Partners and problems

Despite Malaysia’s apprehension of AUKUS, Putrajaya has continued to welcome closer bilateral and multilateral ties with Washington, London, and Canberra, including in the areas of security and defense. Only a month after AUKUS was announced, Malaysia’s Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein affirmed the country’s commitment to the 50-year-old FPDA, the overlap in FPDA and AUKUS partners notwithstanding. As part of the FPDA, Malaysia participated in a 10-day exercise, Bersama Gold 2021, involving 25 fighter jets, six support aircraft, six helicopters, 10 maritime ships, one submarine, and over 2,000 military personnel alongside Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom in the international waters of the South China Sea. Malaysia also hosted the FPDA’s anniversary celebration and the FPDA defense minister’s meeting following the exercise.

This proclivity to segment relationships based on issues and interests as well as the desire to preserve an expansive network of ties with competing major powers are a key element of Malaysia’s foreign policy approach. This is true with AUKUS countries, as it is with China. Despite sustained harassment by Chinese vessels around Malaysian waters, the Malaysia-China relationship remains warm and friendly. Putrajaya has sought to sequester its problems with Beijing in the South China Sea from the economic, political, and socio-cultural dimensions in the bilateral relationship. This separation of issues both between and within partnerships is a feature rather than a bug of Malaysia’s foreign relations. It does not, however, always work perfectly.

Technological pathways

Accordingly, to retain geopolitical space for itself in the middle of deepening fissures between the United States and its allies on the one hand and China on the other, Putrajaya will need to intensify its diplomatic engagement with all sides proactively rather than reactively. This will require looking at trends which now appear to coalesce around technology as well as the governance and regulatory frameworks that underpin it. AUKUS underscores this point.

Nuclear submarine technology for Australia is but a “first initiative” under AUKUS. In the pipeline is trilateral collaboration on cyber, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum, and undersea capabilities. While the subtext for these plans may be defense technology competition with China, there are converging opportunities for cooperation between Malaysia and the three AUKUS countries that could empower Putrajaya in shaping the regional tech landscape. The most accessible, benign, and functional entry point for tech cooperation is the digital economy. Much of this is already underway in Malaysia, with ongoing industry partnerships as well as capacity-building and training efforts to improve cyber security and the operationalization of AI in various economic sectors.

There is one practical way Malaysia can carve out strategic agency while helping chart the region’s tech-based future amid rival powers. The government could create either a coordinating ministerial or ambassadorial portfolio specific to the cross-cutting role of technology. This senior official would stitch together the country’s technology interests in trade and economy, national security, and foreign affairs, and register Malaysia’s perspectives on tech’s rules of the road—from ethics and norms to standards and laws—in bilateral, multilateral, and multi-stakeholder discussions. Although the National Cyber Security Agency of Malaysia currently functions as the lead coordinating agency on cyber security matters, a senior official representing the country’s cross-sectoral interests in broader emergent/emerging technologies could help streamline multi-faceted policies at the domestic level. Additionally, a single, senior point of contact could facilitate cooperation with AUKUS countries and others on new and unfolding technologies. In both substance and form, a coordinating minister or ambassador would recognize tech’s reach across agency silos and the importance of a whole-of-government approach in contributing to the evolving governance frameworks of technology.

Several countries outside of Southeast Asia already have representatives in similar roles that reflect the ubiquity of technology transcending a range of agendas in government, industry, and civil society. Malaysia could benefit from that model. A focused and active Malaysia, along with its ASEAN counterparts, offering thought leadership on tech governance would not only design the country’s digital future in a more comprehensive manner but also potentially help the region avoid the pitfalls of US-China decoupling.

Malaysia may not welcome AUKUS. But it should use it to shape rules of the road to ensure that Southeast Asia’s tech and strategic landscape remains inclusive rather than exclusive.

The author would like to thank the Asia Pacific Team from the Defence and Security Foresight Group (DSFG) for their support during the development of this piece. 

Elina Noor ([email protected]) is Director, Political-Security Affairs and Deputy Director, Washington, D.C. Office at the Asia Society Policy Institute.