Is Malaysia committed to USA and China at the same time? Some contradictions and looking both ways. Moving back and forth goes back to Malaysia's early history. Is it balancing, bandwagoning or hedging? Some regard this as a calculative rather than principled approach.
What does history show? Objective to be friendly to all suggests an equidistant approach but note the following three puzzles.
Malaysia's 1974 quick recognition of China in advance of others in the region seems surprising. It did get strong commitments but it's domestic situation: communist conflict and recent racial riots were a surprising context for this move.
Promotion of regionalism rooted in regional identity. Started in 1959. Reputed pro-Western Tunku government did not join US focused regionalism. Malaysia put a special emphasis on cultural and social underpinning of regionalism. Frequency of meeting and fostering a sense of community and identity has been emphasised. Is it drawing less attention on economic and administrative issues? Is it a natural tendency in Malay world to berkampung or build a community?
A third puzzle is its reaction to South China Seas disputes. It downplays tension and downplays tension. On James Shoal visit by China, Malaysia has said its daily patrols are fine so long as it doesn't lead to war. Some say it's surprisingly passive relative to Vietnam and Philippines reactions.
Pre-1957 history shows that the Johore and Kedah elites have long had to deal with foreign policy. Three themes from the kerajaan world can be explored.
The sultanates are based on rivers with limited populations and high value was placed on subjects numbers to attract more. Rulers were in hierarchy within the archipelago and further. The status of a ruler is different from the nation state.
Pre modern concepts: nama, group binding and moral balance. Nama shows Malay rulers were involved in hierarchy diplomacy. Seeking to understand and identify opportunity. Concern for nama or prestige consistent with hierarchy. Thus less fear of the rise of China. In the past Malacca saw rise of China as opportunity to advance its position; to make Malaysia more special in the region.
Nama system does not require sovereignty. Nama saw overlapping sovereignty. It shows absence of concern on territorial sovereignty. Subjects or people more valued than territory eg. 1870 Sultan of Terreanganu did not know the boundary of his territory. Is laid back view on South China Seas to seek opportunity?
Diplomatic and cultural virtuosity needed in hierarchical nama system. Group binding points to need to build bonding to get practical cooperation and collaboration. Berkampung to build a sense of community. If regionalim was functional then it may focus on economic and security but it does more.
Monarchies reached out in all directions and were willing to reach out and not discriminating in polities. To be impartial and fair to investigate widely with wide consultation - to be adil. This can be seen as search for moral balance. An aspiration for balance is identified in wood carving, textile and pantun. Malaysia was keen to stop the great powers from unbalancing the region's neutrality. Malaysia discussion with Ukraine rebels over its downed aircraft was criticized, but PM Najib noted this approach.
Pre modern perspectives help make Malaysia's approach to foreign policy a bit less puzzling.