Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 09:17 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 09:17 | SYDNEY

Mahathir foreign policy surprises


Graeme Dobell

8 February 2010 09:48

My previous column looked at the Mahathir effect on Malaysia using the map offered by Barry Wain's new book on Malaysia's longest-serving leader. The foreign policy elements in the book point to outcomes at odds with the positions offered by Mahathir's posturing and rhetoric. Consider three examples from the Malaysian maverick:

  • Throughout most of his two decades in power, Mahathir had a secret defence agreement with the US that helped reshape US thinking about its bases strategy for the rest of Asia.
  • Mahathir was one of the founding prophets of 'Asian values'; the idea of a distinctly Asian way of doing politics and economies. Yet Mahathir's private problems with his immediate Asian neighbours were worse than his public spats with Australia.
  • Mahathir's campaign against Australia ended up having a boomerang effect. As soon as Dr M left the scene, every regional prize he'd vetoed was handed to Canberra.

These contradictions may be the lasting foreign policy lesson to take from Australia's long and painful experience with Mahathir Mohamad.

One of the fascinating elements of the book is Wain's description of the secret defence pact Mahathir sealed in Washington in 1984, three years after becoming Prime Minister:

Dr Mahathir threw in his lot with the Americans, agreeing to naval ship visits, ship and aircraft repairs, joint military exercises in Malaysia and close cooperation between the two militaries. Thereafter, Dr Mahathir could launch regular rhetorical broadsides at the US, winning a name in Malaysia and the rest of the developing world for his courage in standing up to Washington, knowing his relations with the Americans rested on a secure footing.

The Bilateral Training and Consultation agreement established a series of working groups for exercises, intelligence sharing, logistic support and general security issues. The US 'vastly expanded military cooperation' while playing along with Mahathir's need to keep the deal secret so as not to damage Malaysia's non-aligned posturing.

The US used Malaysia's jungle warfare school in Johore, the US Navy built a small-ship repair facility at Lumut on Malaysia's west coast and the US Air Force established a facility to repair transport aircraft in Kuala Lumpur. In the early years of this century, US military ships docked at Malaysian ports an average of 30 times a year. In the mid 1990s, the Malaysian agreement became a template for the US in building military ties with other countries. Malaysia became a secret inspiration for the US 'places not bases' strategy.

Wain writes that while Mahathir noisily disagreed with Western fears that China might become a neighbourhood bully, 'in practice he indulged in classic hedging: He contributed to a balance of power arrangement and effectively paid insurance premiums to the US in case anything went wrong.'

Wain argues that Mahathir often stumbled in his ASEAN diplomacy: 'Despite his invocation of Asian values, his own failure to observe some of Southeast Asia's rituals and courtesies put him at loggerheads with neighbours.' The former Philippines Foreign Secretary and ASEAN secretary-general, Rodolfo Severino, said that Mahathir was more effective in the Non Aligned Movement and the Organisation of Islamic Countries than he was in ASEAN.

Mahathir was as vigorous in jostling his large neighbour, Indonesia, as in kicking his small neighbour, Singapore. Mahathir challenged Suharto for regional leadership and 'the depth of the antipathy between the two men imposed serious strains on ASEAN.'

I've written before about Mahathir's animosity bedeviling Australian diplomacy in ASEAN. Over two decades, Mahathir bamboozled Malcolm Fraser, proved immune to Bob Hawke's charm, infuriated Paul Keating and eventually caused John Howard to adopt a 'dead bat' stance which meant he never responded to anything said by the Malaysian leader.

Yet all the things Mahathir sought to deny Australia — a seat at the various Asian summits and an ASEAN free trade deal — quickly materialised after Mahathir left office in 2003. Mahathir's consistent rejection of any Australian involvement turned into an anomaly, even embarrassment, for the rest of ASEAN. The vetoes had become emblems of a personal vendetta rather than considered policy positions.

The Dr M experience shows the rhetoric doesn't always reflect reality. What is said for the benefit of the home audience is not always the policy pursued. And don't take at face value all that gloom-and-doom about the future role of the US in Asia.

Photo by Flickr user KamalSell, used under a Creative Commons license.