In regional Geopolitics, context matters

MALAYSIA has not experienced a revolution or a full-fledged civil war in the modern era (although World War II and the Emergency were bloody). We did not wage a violent war of independence against colonial masters. Rather, we underwent a comparatively peaceful and consultative process to determine the institutions, laws, and modes of government that were appropriate for us. We have not been the victim of serious economic sanctions, trade embargoes or blockades. We experience few natural disasters.

These are things which I have come to appreciate much more about my country simply by being in Cuba: for all of these things seem to dominate your sense of history and identity.

Hearing the other speakers at this conference, it seems that the regionalism of Latin America and the Caribbean is one that is heavily coloured by the Monroe Doctrine and its successive manifestations; one in which superpower ambitions have shaped ideologies and allegiances of this region. In Southeast Asia we certainly had decades of ideological violence, but today Asean has expanded from the original five non-communist countries to 10 countries, which include the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Asean also contains an absolute monarchy, three constitutional monarchies, and four republics of presidential or parliamentary forms. Some governments contain a military role; others feature strong decentralisation. Although many citizens and businesspeople complain that Asean can do more: whether on transboundary haze pollution, economic unity or the Rohingya crisis, the level of cooperation is quite considerable compared to other regions.

This did not come out of thin air: it takes courage and the right conditions for tension to be defused, enabling communication, and the signing of treaties. In Malaysia there is pride that steps were taken to normalise relations with China, with Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak visiting Chairman Mao in 1974 (two years after Nixon).

When it comes to Cuba-Malaysia ties, famous encounters of Dr Mahathir Mohamad with Fidel Castro come to mind.

Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister often invoked the language of anti-imperialism and solidarity among third world countries, commensurate with Malaysia’s membership of the Non-Aligned Movement and the G77.

Dr Mahathir visited Cuba in 1997 and 2000, while Fidel Castro visited Malaysia in 2001 and 2003. Looking back at the archives, it is clear that the bilateral meetings electrified large sections of society, despite some misgivings. But there was real cooperation on science, education, and trade. I have been asked whether, now that Dr Mahathir is back as Prime Minister, there will be another rekindling of ties. I do not know the answer, but I certainly see opportunities in doing so.

Of course, the world has changed significantly, seeing a return of bipolarity featuring the US and China, although with other significant powers and regional blocs. As Malaysia’s Prime Minister said recently at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Baku, “we are caught in the middle as the country economically is linked to both markets, and physically are also caught in between because of geographical location”.

It is impossible to not notice the impact of Chinese participation in Malaysia’s economy, while issues such as claims in the South China Sea have now crossed into the realm of popular culture, with the recent animated movie ‘Abominable’ not being shown in the country because the distributor refused to remove a depiction of the nine-dash line.

Meanwhile, the United States has been prone to some unpredictability. Even their own diplomats and top officials have expressed surprise at some of the current president’s decisions, such as the sudden withdrawal of US support for the Kurds in Syria. Direct communication between certain world leaders bypasses traditional diplomatic channels and can add more uncertainty to world politics.

Greater regional cooperation is one way to mitigate against such uncertainty, even between countries with vastly different histories and types of government, with an emphasis towards shared goals.

I was much encouraged when speaking to future Cuban diplomats at the Institute on International Relations (ISRI). We had a fruitful discussion acknowledging that context matters in geopolitics: we in Malaysia have a different relationship with the United States than you do; and similarly, Cuba will have a different relationship with China than we do.

Another personal observation about Cuba is that culture permeates through everything: music and dance are everywhere, which surely bodes well for the pursuit of cultural diplomacy as well.

We may be on the other side of the world, but through the shared experience of appreciating art, we can help catalyse cooperation in our geopolitically complex world.

Adapted from the writer’s speech at the Fifth Conference on Strategic Studies: Conflicting Geopolitics and an International Order in Transition organised by the International Policy Research Centre (CIPI), Cuba.