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Strengthening New Warmth in Malaysia-India Relations

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Written by Karisma Putera Abd Rahman and Nabiela Ismail, Research and Advocacy Analyst

Malaysia and India have a long tradition of interaction. Recently, the Defence Minister of India Rajnath Singh embarked on a four-day visit to Kuala Lumpur in July this year as both countries contend to strengthen defence ties — the latest in renewed bilateral warmth between Malaysia and India.

During the working visit, both countries explored opportunities to deepen strategic cooperation in various fields such as bilateral ties and security cooperation. In 2019, the Malaysia-India relationship soured after former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed alleged that India had “invaded and occupied” the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir during his address at the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Therefore, recent high-level visits by the Indian Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh and Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs V. Muraleedharan signal an uptick in Malaysia-India bilateral relations. The renewed warmth between the two countries is welcomed as it allows for deeper cooperation in addressing pressing global issues.

Minister Singh and Malaysian Minister of Defence Dato' Seri Utama Mohamad Hasan discussed initiatives to expand further bilateral defence ties, focusing on identifying ways to strengthen industrial cooperation. This was most prominently seen with Minister Singh inaugurating the regional office of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

In February 2023, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) awarded the contract for 18 new light combat aircraft (LCA) to Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) under the CAP55 programme of improving the capacity of the RMAF, beating out numerous bids from prospective contractors such as HAL for its Tejas aircraft to replace Malaysia's ageing fleet of BAE Hawks and Aermacchi MB-339s. However, under the same initiative, the RMAF also plans to retire its fleet of multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) consisting of F/A-18 Hornets and Sukhoi Su-30s by 2040.

Therefore, a stronger presence of HAL in Malaysia can be seen as preparation for a stronger future bid to offer its upcoming MRCA, the Tejas Mk2, against the likely effort of KAI to supply its KF-21 Boramae. Thus it is clear that India seeks to strengthen defence industry cooperation significantly, taking advantage of the presently warm relations with Malaysia.

The strengthened defence industry cooperation follows numerous bilateral military exercises held in 2022 for the Armed Forces. The consecutive exercises have highlighted the eagerness of the two countries to ensure defence readiness amid growing geopolitical turbulence in Asia.

These visits are part of ongoing efforts to enhance relations between two nations, which are critical due to their strategic location in the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, India and Malaysia discussed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the recruitment of workers while it is still in the finalisation stage.

This MoU is expected to lead to smoother management of labour and also address problems faced by Indian workers in Malaysia and Malaysian workers in India. Under the MoU, a group comprising representatives from the two countries would be set up to monitor and provide solutions to issues faced by these workers.

Economic and commercial relations are also a significant part of the bilateral relations between the two countries. As of 2021-2022, Malaysia has emerged as the 13th largest trading partner for India, while India is amongst Malaysia's ten largest trading partners. The total bilateral trade in 2022 was RM 86.3 billion, with more than 150 Indian companies, including 61 Indian joint ventures, operating in Malaysia. With this new mechanism, it is expected to boost the number in traded volume and overcome the currency-related obstacles all this while.

However, the recent visit of Minister Singh did not build on Minister Muraleedharan’s previous invitation to collaborate. In June, the latter invited Malaysia to collaborate on any pillar of Prime Minister Modi's Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) and work together for the sustainable development of the Indo-Pacific region.

The IPOI is significant for Malaysia and ASEAN due to the evolving geopolitical dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region. The IPOI seeks to promote a free and inclusive Indo-Pacific while empowering ASEAN Centrality—aligning with the strategic interests of Malaysia and other ASEAN members.

These nations have a vested interest in maintaining the stability and security of the maritime domain, and the IPOI serves as a platform to achieve these objectives. By working with India through the IPOI, Malaysia can enhance its strategic position and assert more relevance in the Indo-Pacific landscape.

There have been recent positive developments in India-Malaysia relations. While both countries have engaged in high-level defence engagements, and with plans to enhance cooperation in various sectors including cultural diplomacy and digital economy, the future works on Malaysia-India relations should be conducted systematically by focusing on specific areas of collaboration.

In conclusion, while there have been challenges and fluctuations in India-Malaysia relations, both countries recognise the importance of their bilateral ties and are working towards enhancing cooperation in various areas.

This article was published on NST.

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