From the capitals of Jakarta, Phnom Penh and Bangkok leaders of Asean countries are watching how Malaysia’s strategic drift towards Japan is likely to unfold.

The breakthrough Malaysia makes in its pivot towards Japan might provide Asean countries a template that they are likely to follow to free itself from the shackles of its over-dependence on China.

Ever since Tun Dr Mahathir’s return to political power this year, he has put the third power; Japan, a nation increasingly seen as a reliable partner as competition and rivalry between Beijing and Washington intensifies.

Upon taking office, Japan was the first country that the Prime Minister visited and sought a close relationship with his counterpart Shinzo Abe, who had pledged to strengthen ties with Japan and made a pitch to Japan to help Malaysia to reduce its indebtedness and for increased Japanese investments into Malaysia.

Japan’s strong confidence on Tun Mahathir led to financial aid packages to Malaysia including the Samurai bonds. The RM7.4 billion yen-denominated bonds are expected to be issued before March this year is likely to help Malaysia reduce its financial burden of the previous government but would invite renewed Japanese investors to make a return to Malaysia.

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Malaysia’s pivot towards Japan comes at a time when there is marked uncertainty in the world with it is moving towards bilateralism and away from multilateralism.

With the change of guard in the world’s most powerful nation, the US, the new president, Donald Trump appears to have reversed the gear on globalization and now embracing protectionism over multilateralism.

He has practically back peddled on all major policies of his immediate predecessors, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and US Pivot towards Asia.

The unilateral approach of the US is also beginning to show a strain on the rest of the world as the world is witnessing a change in the rule book that is being rewritten by the new President.

With the radical shift in the geopolitical realities in the world-multilateral groupings such as Asean would have to rethink their current roles.

China’s dominance in the region appears to have strengthened and Asean centrality is under siege. The belt and road initiative (BRI) is showing its divisionary nature pulling Cambodia and Myanmar closer to China.

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By reconfiguring of the geopolitical landscape, Asean countries are pursuing their own unilateral deals with China at the detriment of Asean centrality.

Asean has also shown that it was not able to unite itself against China’s handling of geopolitical matters such as the South China conflict.

Beijing is dealing on an individual basis with Asean member states, a policy that is aiding it in its conquest of the hotly contested seas which begs the question as to how long will Asean remain relevant, as its members continue to forge alliances outside the groupings.

Mahathir’s pivot towards Japan might provide answers to this burning question. For a start, the Japanese Ambassador to Malaysia Dr Miyagawa had said that the enthusiasm among Japanese industries in seeking and expanding investments in Malaysia had resumed recently with the new government in place

The envoy added that new wave of confidence of the Japanese investors, among others, to transparencies, justice and the rule of law.

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Malaysia’s strategic drift towards Japan might provide a template for Asean countries to emulate and thus keep Asean centrality intact.

Sathish used to work in a think-tank in Kuala Lumpur