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Unpacking the Evolving Türkiye-Malaysia Partnership and its Repercussions on the Indo-Pacific

02 May 2024
By Cheuk Yui (Thomas) Kwong
Prime Minister Anwar meets with President Erdogan. Source: Prime Ministers office of Malaysia /

The frequent exchanges between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim have raised eyebrows within and beyond the context of the Türkiye-Malaysia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The time may have come to re-evaluate Türkiye and Malaysia’s roles in the Indo-Pacific.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s recent visit to Türkiye on 22 October, 2023, marked a significant development in the bilateral relationship between the two nations. During his trip, Anwar held a closed-door meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and engaged in discussions with the Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek. Leading up to their meeting in October, both leaders also convened at the Turkish House in New York before the 78th United Nations General Assembly. Their discussions centred on enhancing cooperation across various sectors, including the procurement of Turkish drones and helicopters, as well as collaborative initiatives to combat Islamophobia.

Prior to this visit, both leaders had already established a pattern of frequent meetings and phone calls to exchange views and ideas on various global issues, ranging from the conflict in Gaza to addressing Islamophobia and Quran burnings. This level of engagement is somewhat unusual within the Türkiye-Malaysia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership framework. Ankara suggests frequent communication typically occurs when policymakers and leaders regard their counterparts, such as Qatar and Azerbaijan, as allies. Conversely, Malaysian political history does not reflect a pattern wherein a prime minister conducts frequent meetings with foreign leaders who are not considered allies within a year. Further, a recent article written by the Turkish Ambassador to Malaysia shows a strong intent from both Ankara and Putrajaya to elevate and enhance their existing comprehensive strategic partnership.

The evolving partnership between Türkiye and Malaysia can be attributed to several factors, including shifting global dynamics, characterised by China’s ascent and the waning influence of the United States in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Malaysia, in particular, seeks to strike a delicate balance between the United States and China while dealing with the challenges posed by China in the South China Sea and maintaining its strategic autonomy. The increasing tensions in the South China Sea have raised concerns over Malaysian security and sovereignty, as Malaysia has conflicting interests and claims shared by other regional countries. Vietnam, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia have all strengthened their military power, prompting policymakers in Putrajaya to focus on rebuilding Malaysia’s military strengths. Recent security and defence agreements between Türkiye and Malaysia, such as supplying unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters to the Malaysian Air Force, demonstrate Malaysia’s agenda of modernising its Air Force with Ankara’s assistance.

Türkiye, on the other hand, views these shifts in global politics as opportunities to advance its long-term strategic objectives. Despite persistent challenges in its domestic economy, it aims to become a prominent power in international politics. Türkiye is enthusiastic about harnessing the substantial emerging markets and geostrategic significance offered by countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Türkiye unveiled its inaugural “Asia Anew Initiative” in 2019, symbolising a fresh approach to its policies concerning the Asian region, with a specific focus on the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia. These areas already share conflicting interests or rivalries with China and surrounding actors with agendas and ambitions similar to those of Iran and Russia. By expanding its economic and security outreach, Türkiye aims to achieve its strategic objectives of leading global and regional politics while bolstering its economy.

Furthermore, the close historical ties and personal relationships between leaders and countries have played a crucial role in paving the way for evolving bilateral relationships. Dating back to the Ottoman era, Türkiye has long had connections with Malaysia. Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor and his brother Engku Abdul Majid visited Istanbul during the late 19th century, establishing a close relationship with Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire. This historical foundation laid the groundwork for continued bilateral relations even after the formation of the federal government in Malaysia in 1963. Despite changes in foreign policy agendas and approaches, both countries have continued to nurture and develop their relationship. For example, initiatives like former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s “Islam Hadhari” (Islamic Civilization) and Najib Razak’s “Wasatiyah” (moderation) have provided opportunities for Malaysia to revive and expand its relations with Türkiye across various domains.

Since 2014, Türkiye and Malaysia have drawn even closer. During a visit by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak to Türkiye, they agreed to elevate their countries’ bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership, marking a significant milestone in their diplomatic ties. Subsequently, in April 2014, both nations forged a vital economic link by signing a free-trade agreement (FTA), further solidifying their partnership.

The enduring friendship between Anwar and Erdoğan has also contributed significantly to advancing bilateral relations. This friendship gained attention in 2018 when Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) party won the Malaysian general election under then-Prime Minister Tun Mahathir bin Mohamad with a favourable policy toward Türkiye. Erdoğan’s facilitation of medical surgery for Anwar in Türkiye further strengthened their bond, emphasising the depth of their friendship.

The bilateral relationship between Türkiye and Malaysia has continued to advance, particularly in economic and diplomatic spheres. Despite the political crisis in Malaysia, known as the Sheraton Move in 2020, which led to a change of government without an election, Türkiye and Malaysia expanded their FTA in 2022 to include e-commerce and the removal of trade and investment barriers.

Additionally, Türkiye and Malaysia have aligned their positions in various multilateral forums, such as the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, presenting a united front on global issues, including Islamophobia, the Israel-Hamas conflict, counterterrorism, and concerns over the rise of extreme Islamism. Anwar’s recent visit further deepened Malaysia’s ties with Türkiye, with both nations agreeing to bolster economic and defence ties, and particularly in tourism, defence procurement, joint economic projects, and bilateral investment.

While there is a clear trend towards closer relations between Türkiye and Malaysia, political factors remain critical in elevating these bilateral relations. Malaysia’s Unity Government under Anwar’s leadership faces internal political struggles among its coalition members and challenges from opposition parties. In Türkiye, the recent local election, coupled with the ruling coalition’s defeat under Erdoğan’s leadership, could potentially alter Turkish foreign policy, nudging Ankara towards a more nationalist, Islamist, and economic-focused stance. Such a shift could help the ruling coalition regain voter support. However, it also requires a cautious foreign policy approach, with careful calculations in evaluating Malaysia and other states, to benefit the ruling coalition in the next general election in 2028.

Despite these challenges, the growing relationship between Türkiye and Malaysia will undoubtedly influence regional stability. The emerging Turkish axis, grounded in the “Century of Türkiye” doctrine in the developing world, the Muslim world, and critical regions in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, appears to pose no direct threat to Western interests. However, it may unsettle the United States and China, as Türkiye intends to maintain its strategic autonomy, akin to Malaysia, despite its role in NATO and alliance with the US. On the other hand, Malaysia welcomes the resurgence of Turkish hegemony in the Islamic world, hoping it can lead Putrajaya and the global Muslim community to embrace the revival of the Islamic renaissance and oppose perceived “foreign incursions.” Accordingly, policymakers in Australia and other states should closely monitor the evolving Türkiye-Malaysia relationship, as well as its potential repercussions for the Indo-Pacific region.

Cheuk Yui (Thomas) Kwong is an international affairs specialist who previously served as a research assistant at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He holds an advanced master’s degree in Middle East and Central Asian Studies from the Australian National University. For more information, you can connect with him here.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.