Anwar Ibrahim’s diplomatic journey: strengthening Malaysia’s role on the global stage

Anwar Ibrahim’s first year as Malaysia’s Prime Minister has witnessed a dynamic foreign policy agenda, marked by a strategic focus on strengthening relations, pursuing economic prosperity, and championing human rights.

The recent overseas trips by Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim have garnered significant attention, prompting a closer examination of how Malaysia’s foreign policy might evolve under his leadership. This development is of particular importance given Malaysia’s substantial influence both regionally and globally. Additionally, it aligns with broader trends unfolding in the Indo-Pacific region and the international system at large.

In November, Anwar Ibrahim assumed the role of Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister amid a challenging period marked by both domestic and international uncertainties. The political landscape had been disrupted by the “Sheraton move” in 2020, leading to the removal of the 22-month-old Pakatan Harapan government. The subsequent two years under the Perikatan Nasional government were characterised by the COVID-19 crisis, economic challenges, internal political conflicts, and yet another change in leadership overshadowing foreign policy considerations.

Amidst this tumultuous backdrop, Malaysians were in search of a leader capable of bringing stability to the nation while also enhancing its global standing. The emphasis was not necessarily on an authoritarian figure but rather on competent and effective leadership, both domestically and internationally. The nation was yearning for a leader who could navigate the intricate challenges at home and contribute to elevating Malaysia’s presence on the international stage.

The unfolding foreign policy dynamics under Anwar’s leadership warrant close observation, considering Malaysia’s strategic importance in regional and global affairs. The shifts in Malaysia’s approach to international relations could have implications not only for the country itself but also for the broader geopolitical landscape, reflecting the evolving dynamics within the Indo-Pacific region and the international arena. The developments in Malaysia’s foreign policy thus contribute to a broader understanding of the ongoing transformations and challenges shaping the global order.

In this context, Anwar’s election was embraced as a positive development, sparking optimism that the newfound political stability would empower his government to tackle Malaysia’s diverse foreign policy challenges.

Swiftly after assuming office, the new government introduced the “Malaysia Madani” slogan, signalling a commitment to fostering a civil and inclusive nation. In the realm of foreign policy, this translated into a proactive stance, involving speaking out when deemed necessary and actively advancing Malaysia’s national interests through diplomatic channels.

A year into Anwar’s leadership, there is a discernible increase in the activity of Malaysia’s foreign policy. The government has demonstrated a heightened level of engagement on the international stage, suggesting a deliberate effort to assert Malaysia’s presence and pursue its strategic objectives through diplomatic means.

Anwar Ibrahim’s foreign policy agenda has prominently focused on three key areas: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Middle East, and relations with major global powers.

 

Global Powers

Anwar Ibrahim’s approach to major power relations, particularly with the United States and China, has been a subject of interest and scrutiny. Despite his initial emphasis on Malaysia remaining non-aligned and avoiding entanglement in major power rivalries, the past year has witnessed a warming of relations with China, prompting questions about Malaysia’s strategic orientation.

Anwar has engaged in several high-level meetings with senior Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Prime Minister Li Qiang, and President Xi Jinping. His two visits to China in March and September resulted in the signing of numerous memoranda of understanding, generating significant investments that Malaysians perceive as beneficial for the local economy. Anwar’s public invitations for President Xi to visit Malaysia further underscore the deepening ties.

This has raised questions, especially as some observers anticipated Anwar to be more pro-West, given the support he received from the U.S. during his incarceration. The perceived leaning towards China has prompted concerns from the U.S. and its allies amid escalating geopolitical tensions.

Anwar has defended his government’s China policy, citing geographical proximity, deep cultural ties, and China’s status as Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 14 consecutive years. The 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2024 is expected to bring efforts to elevate the relationship further. Anwar’s eagerness to host President Xi in Kuala Lumpur reflects the significance of this milestone.

However, the evaluation of the China trip was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Malaysia’s South China Sea policy. Despite Malaysia’s official position not showing any significant shifts, the attention and discussion were disproportionately focused on this aspect, creating a backdrop of concern and scrutiny over Anwar’s handling of regional maritime issues

On the U.S. front, the lack of diplomatic warmth appears mutual, with recent U.S. leaders’ visits to Southeast Asia bypassing Malaysia in favour of other countries like Vietnam. The absence of senior U.S. officials’ visits to Malaysia since Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip in December 2021 suggests that both sides currently have other priorities in their diplomatic engagements.

 

Middle East

Expanding his diplomatic outreach beyond the Indo-Pacific region, Anwar has actively engaged with leaders from the Middle East. Notable instances include his swift visit to Turkey, where Malaysia played a role in search and rescue as well as humanitarian efforts in the aftermath of a significant and deadly earthquake. Another important interaction took place with Saudi Arabia, during which discussions extended beyond the anticipated meetings with the royal family to explore new commercial opportunities. While the initial focus surrounded the missed meetings, the broader context suggests Anwar’s commitment to cultivating relationships and exploring economic avenues beyond the initial headlines.

Additionally, he participated in forums such as the emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the ASEAN-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, both held in October of the same year. These engagements underscore Malaysia’s wish to strengthen ties with Middle Eastern nations and participate actively in regional forums.

Anwar Ibrahim’s proactive approach to the Myanmar issue extended to various international forums and private discussions, underscoring his commitment to addressing the humanitarian crisis. He raised the matter at the extraordinary Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting and the APEC Summit. In addition to these multilateral engagements, Anwar held private discussions on the issue with influential leaders, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Notably, all of these diplomatic efforts transpired within the remarkably short span of a month.

 

ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations)

During the initial months of Anwar’s tenure, his foreign policy agenda has exhibited somewhat expected patterns, although not without certain concerns. A key aspect of Anwar’s early diplomatic efforts involved a tour of several Southeast Asian states, during which Malaysia achieved a milestone by signing its first-ever green economy agreement with Singapore. The visit also underscored Malaysia’s role in mediating the southern Thailand insurgency and emphasized the significance of intraregional and institutional opportunities in the context of U.S.-China rivalry, particularly in trade and investment. Anwar’s government took a firm stance on Myanmar, later clarified by the foreign ministry, while the visit to China was highlighted for its potential investment gains in the post-pandemic growth scenario.

Upon assuming office, Anwar prioritized the cultivation of strong ties with the heads of ASEAN member states. In his inaugural year, he conducted visits to all ASEAN countries, except Myanmar. Notably, Anwar engaged in a meeting with Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao during the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta in September. Timor-Leste, currently an observer in ASEAN, aspires to join the bloc by 2025, coinciding with Malaysia’s next term as the rotating chair. Anwar’s extensive regional diplomacy marks an unprecedented level of engagement for a Malaysian prime minister, underscoring his steadfast commitment to the ASEAN bloc.

Malaysia, under Anwar’s leadership, has maintained a steadfast stance on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. Anwar has been notably vocal about the situation, expressing disappointment in the slow progress of the Five-Point Consensus. Challenging the notion that “non-interference is not a license for indifference,” he has actively urged fellow ASEAN leaders to hold the Myanmar junta accountable for human rights violations. Anwar raised this issue in discussions with leaders such as Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Anwar’s diplomatic activism on the Myanmar crisis has contributed to enhancing his standing in the Muslim world and has simultaneously elevated Malaysia’s global profile. By leveraging various international platforms and engaging in direct conversations with key leaders, Anwar has demonstrated a commitment to advocating for human rights and addressing pressing global challenges.

 

Impacts

The Malaysian government’s foreign policy, under Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership, is characterized by a multifaceted approach aimed at strengthening international relations, fostering economic prosperity, and championing human rights. This strategic focus aligns with the broader goals of enhancing Malaysia’s role on the global stage.

Firstly, Anwar’s active diplomacy within ASEAN reflects Malaysia’s commitment to cultivating stronger and more stable relations within the region, countering perceptions of growing divisions. This effort positions Malaysia as a key player in fostering regional cooperation and stability.

Secondly, the emphasis on attracting investments and pursuing economic opportunities underscores the government’s priority of boosting the national economy. Anwar’s engagement in signing memoranda of understanding and seeking economic partnerships demonstrates a commitment to leveraging foreign relations for economic growth.

Thirdly, the increased focus on championing human rights aligns with the moral character embodied in the concept of “Malaysia Madani,” promoting a civil and inclusive nation. Anwar’s vocal stance on issues like the Myanmar crisis underscores a commitment to ethical foreign policy.

Collectively, Anwar’s foreign policy endeavours undoubtedly serve Malaysia’s national interests. His proactive and vocal approach distinguishes him from some predecessors who may have neglected foreign policy. While one year is a relatively short period for diplomatic initiatives, Anwar’s commendable activities signal a strong intent for the years ahead.

Looking forward, the government’s foreign policy should not be limited to rhetoric but should emphasize proactive engagement, solidifying Malaysia’s position as a relevant player in international affairs. The challenge for Anwar will be to transition from expressing intent to implementing tactical initiatives that contribute substantively to global discourse and decision-making.

As Anwar progresses towards the end of his term in 2027, his leadership will be crucial in shaping Malaysia into one of the region’s most strategic players. Rallying consensus within ASEAN will be a key test of his diplomatic skills, especially as Malaysia prepares to assume the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2025. The momentum built during this period will be critical in positioning Malaysia as an influential force in regional and global affairs.