Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s perspective on a new East Asian economic nexus inclusive of India is surely novel.

As a major player in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia is beginning to look upon India as a potentially indispensable partner. The political message is implicit in comments that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak made prior to his five-day visit to India at this time. And, the message is that Malaysia sees India as a potential partner of the 10-member ASEAN itself in reshaping the existing East Asian economic order.

Quite revealing was his answer to a question about the possibility of a new concert of Asian powers consisting of China, India, Japan, and the ASEAN. In an interactive session at his office at Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital, on January 11, Mr. Najib said: “If you extrapolate [the current trends], I think, the first part of the 21st century will be essentially [one] uni-polar [global order]. But, gradually, people will see it as a multi-polar kind of world, in which the growing influence of China obviously [is felt]. The projection is that by 2050 China would be the biggest economy in terms of the size of GDP [Gross Domestic Product] and that India would be following not too far behind. And, we will see the integration of the ASEAN as an economic community with East Asia and also with India. So, I see that kind of a nexus developing as we move on in the 21st century.”

The uni-polar order is, of course, shorthand for the primacy of the United States — regardless of how debatable are the views about its current economic decline. And, a multi-polar dispensation is shorthand for a plurality of powers with the perceived strengths to balance each other or act together on a variety of issues.

On India’s future role in Malaysia’s neighbourhood, Mr. Najib has had this say: “You cannot deny the growing strategic importance of India. I think India will be a major player in strategic terms — all-encompassing [in scope], not only as a fast-growing economy. India will play a very important part in international affairs in the region and beyond. And, that is why I [have] made India as one of the countries that I will be visiting quite early on after I have taken over [as Prime Minister a few months ago].”

Mr. Najib avoided portraying his vision of a new nexus of economic linkages as a prophecy about the formation of an Asian concert of powers. However, the ongoing global economic crisis has raised the possibility of a new political order in East Asia, home to several players with worldwide interests. Fully cognisant of this, Mr. Najib chose to be cautious about the ideas that might reduce the importance of the U.S. and some of its long-standing allies. Asked whether Malaysia would support the formation of an Asian Monetary Fund (AMF), Mr. Najib said: “We have not made any firm decision yet.”

The Chiang Mai Initiative, which he cited in the same breath, is a currency pool of the ASEAN+3 entity, the +3 countries being China, Japan, and South Korea. In a sense, the pool, which is being enlarged this year to help the members face foreign exchange contingencies, can become the nucleus of an AMF. The unrealised Japanese proposal of an AMF, by this or any other name, is a potential alternative to the West-dominated International Monetary Fund. Aware of such nuances, Mr. Najib spoke about a current move by Malaysia and China to use their national currencies for some aspects of bilateral trade.

However, Malaysia’s central bank officials cautioned against seeing this as a ploy to stop using the U.S. dollar for settling Malaysia’s transactions with China.

These and other niceties of Malaysia’s current world-view reflect the emerging possibilities of a new inter-state order in East Asia that might include India. Any such future order will not be the same as the existing East Asia Summit; just a forum of leaders of the ASEAN and six countries including India. There is a caveat, too, about the potential extent of India’s relevance to and role in East Asian affairs. The behind-the-scenes view in Malaysia’s official circles is that much will depend on whether the ASEAN+3 entity can or will be enlarged to include India. Relevant to this puzzle is also a debate on the long-term capabilities of the U.S. to stay its current course as a global power with a “resident” status in East Asia.

A Harvard professor may have written about the possibility of Americans seeing, at some stage, their Hollywood as a word-play on India’s Bollywood. But India does not equal China in the larger international opinion circles. Indeed, a 2009 treatise from the West traces a scenario of “when China rules the world.” In such a broad sweep of futurology, Mr. Najib’s perspective on the possibility of a new East Asian economic nexus inclusive of India is surely novel.

On the Malaysia-India bilateral front itself, Mr. Najib has given himself space to raise the exiting benchmarks in a measured fashion. He does not see the current level of defence-related cooperation as being sub-optimal in scope. And, he draws a line for possible cooperation with India in the maintenance of security along the Straits of Malacca. Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore are the acknowledged littoral states along this intensely-used international waterway. The protection of this sea lane is the “main responsibility [of] the littoral states,” Mr. Najib has emphasised. And, they “are open to any kind of cooperation, as long as it does not undermine the Number One principle” of the littoral states’ responsibility.

Malaysia is yet to set its own national goals firmly for space exploration and civil nuclear energy, two possible areas of cooperation with India. In broader economic terms, Malaysia will now seek to “reactivate” the talks on a comprehensive pact with India.

On the whole, Malaysia tends to see its ties with India as being virtually irritant-free. Some in India do, of course, regard the “concerns” of the Malaysian Indians and the issue of some “missing” Indian nationals in Malaysia as possible irritants. Mr. Najib’s answer is that his government is indeed “responsive” to the sensitivities of the Malaysian Indians.

His government is also addressing the issue of the overstaying Indian nationals in Malaysia, “principally from Chennai.” They are reckoned to stay on in Malaysia for “whatever reason.” And, Mr. Najib has indicated that he would “probably mention” this issue during his prospective talks in India.

On the presence of “illegal Indian workers in Malaysia,” S. Subramaniam, a prominent ethnic-Indian Minister in Mr. Najib’s Cabinet, has cited a figure of 1,50,000. He said: “At one stage, we were giving visa on arrival. But we [have] had to stop it, because too many people were coming in and not going back. That was a facility given to genuine tourists. The number, I am told, is [now] coming down, as wages and opportunities increase in India.”

Malaysia is open to cooperation with India in the maintenance of security along the Straits of Malacca

The issue of overstaying Indian nationals is likely to figure in talks with India

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