Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Beyond Sovereignty: Non-Western International Relations in Malaysia's Foreign Relations

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Beyond Sovereignty: Non-Western International Relations in Malaysia's Foreign Relations

Article excerpt

As with other countries, Malaysia expresses concern about national sovereignty and issues related to the distribution and balance of power in the international system. However, Malaysia's behaviour in foreign relations is in some respects distinctive, and this may be due partly to the influence of a heritage of pre-modern Malay thinking. Certain ideas in this heritage--including perspectives on the character of the state, the interests of the state and international order (moral as well as political)--differ radically from post-Westphalian thinking. The best way to interrogate the Malay tradition of foreign relations is likely to be through a disciplinary collaboration between International Relations (IR) and Area Studies, particularly the "history of ideas".

The investigation of non-Western IR theory is demanding. (1) As Amitav Acharya puts it, "we need to move beyond discourses to research and scholarship". (2) To develop a genuinely "Global International Relations"--grounded in world rather than merely Western history--requires comprehending "dynamics of power and ideas" that may be "fundamentally different" from those grounded in the familiar so-called Westphalian model. (3) Key IR concepts, "including the state, self-help, power, and security" may not "fit" non-Western realities. (4)

Today, the need to investigate non-Western approaches towards China is obvious enough; but as the future of Asia will be determined by interaction between a range of players (and perhaps not only states), the operations of smaller Asian countries also matter. In the case of Southeast Asia, the study of its strategic heritage is still at a pioneering stage. (5)

Malaysia has been attracting the attention of the United States, Japan and China; and it is when we consider the particular way the country handles major powers, territorial disputes, region building and other issues, that its leadership's approach to foreign relations seems distinctive. (6) Material factors, of course, are relevant in Malaysia's determination to seek accommodation with China, to strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and to be a highly energetic member of the United Nations (UN). A comprehensive analysis would take careful account, for instance, of the country's size, location and ethnic mix. But such an analysis also needs to examine ideational factors. This article seeks to support such an investigation by focusing on some features of pre-modern Malay conceptualizations of interstate relations. The manner in which the Malay heritage interacts with modern foreign policy assumptions would require careful study, case by case. Even in a preliminary inquiry, however, that heritage would appear to throw light on some of the peculiarities of modern Malaysia's international behaviour.

One analytic starting point is state "sovereignty", which, like "power", is a concept of pivotal importance in modern IR analysis. (7) Carrying assumptions about absolute and perpetual authority over a specific defined territory, and the presence of formal equality between state actors in the international system, the Western history of "sovereignty" is well known. (8) In the case of interstate relations in Asia, its influence is often taken for granted. In Southeast Asia, it is said to be the "central principle" of ASEAN. (9)

That "sovereignty" gained currency in Malaysia and other parts of Asia is not surprising given the hegemonic role of Western powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Is the commitment to sovereignty, however, in some way challenged or modified by the continuing potency of other earlier concepts? The question matters if we wish to take account of the full range of factors shaping international behaviour. (10) And yet, as Bilgin Pinar has explained, there has been a lack of curiosity in IR about non-Western thinking, and a tendency to explain away "non-Western" dynamics by superimposing "Western categories". …

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