Malaysia Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

According to abbreviationfinder, Malaysia is a nation in Southeastern Asia. Its capital city is Kuala Lumpur. The emphasis of Malaysia’s foreign policy lies on the Southeast Asian community within ASEAN. At the same time, the country is active within the UN and has participated in many peacekeeping efforts in the world. Malaysia also wants to be a bridge builder between the Muslim and the non-Muslim part of the world. During the 2010 century, contacts with China have been significantly strengthened.

malaysia military spending and defense budget

Malaysia’s most important bilateral relations are still those with neighboring Singapore, although China is now competing for the spot as its main trading partner. Singapore is the largest exporting country. Relations with the city state in the south have been periodically strained due to territorial conflicts. In 2008, the International Court of Justice in The Hague granted Singapore the right to the Batu Puteh Rock Island in the Singapore Strait. Both countries had been disputing the island since 1979. At the same time, Malaysia was granted the right to a rock formation called Middle Rocks in the same area. Some territorial disputes arose when Mahathir Mohamad, who has a history of strained relations with Singapore, again became prime minister of Malaysia 2018. These disputes a year later appeared to have been resolved through ministerial talks.

  • Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Malaysia for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.

Relations with Thailand in the north have long been disturbed by a separatist uprising among the Muslim population in southern Thailand (see Conflicts: Southern Thailand). The uprising has escalated since 2006. Thailand has accused Malaysia of supporting the separatists by not doing enough to prevent them from finding sanctuary inside Muslim Malaysia. Malaysia, for its part, has criticized Thailand for not doing anything about many civilians fleeing from the unrest in southern Thailand to the neighboring country in the south. Following a military coup in Thailand in 2014, relations have improved and countries have agreed to build a more than a mile-long wall in the southern Thai province of Songkhla. The purpose is to stop rebels and refugees from moving across the border.

Malaysia has mediated in the Mindanao conflict in the Philippines between the country’s government and the Muslim guerrilla Milf (Moro’s Islamic Liberation Front; see Philippines, Muslim separatists). Relations with the Philippines have been complicated by the so-called Sulu state of Sulu in the southern Philippines claiming the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo. In 1878, Sulu handed over control of Sabah to the British for an annual fee. Malaysia still pays an annual fee to the Sultanate. In February 2013, a coastal community in Sabah was temporarily occupied by a Philippine armed group on the grounds that it belonged to Sulu (see Calendar).

Comprehensive labor migration

Relations with Indonesia are also periodically strained. Malaysia has repeatedly complained that health-threatening smoke from huge forest fires in Indonesian Borneo is devastating the air in the region. A subject of conflict is also the many Indonesian guest workers who illegally enter Malaysia, where the pay situation is higher than in the home country. Malaysia has in turn deported paperless Indonesians. At the same time, Indonesian authorities have reacted strongly to data that Indonesian labor was being treated poorly in neighboring countries. Between 2009 and 2011, Indonesians were prohibited from traveling to Malaysia to work as domestic servants. The ban was lifted after the two countries signed an agreement on improved working conditions for women. Cambodia also banned domestic maids from traveling to Malaysia for a period of time after reports of abuse. The Philippines has protested against mass deportations of Filipino citizens. In February 2018, there were 1.8 million registered guest workers in Malaysia, of which 40 percent came from Indonesia, 22 percent from Nepal and 15 percent from Bangladesh. Estimates of the number of paperless migrant workers vary between 3 million and 4 million.

In the 2010s, Malaysia has expressed growing concern over how the Muslim minority Rohingy is being treated in Myanmar (see Myanmar, Rohingy situation). In 2019, there were just over 84,000 registered Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. The Kuala Lumpur government has criticized Myanmar for the military offensive in the state of Rakhine, which in 2017 led to nearly 800,000 Rohingy people being driven out of the country, and former Prime Minister Najib Razak termed the ban as genocide.

Like the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and China, Malaysia claims the uninhabited Sprat Islands in the South China Sea, where there is probably oil beneath the seabed. In 2002, the parties agreed on a Code of Conduct which means that they must abstain from actions that may aggravate the situation in the area. Despite this, tensions have occasionally increased. Malaysia has kept a fairly low profile in the conflict and has thus been able to maintain a balance in relations with the parties involved.

Close relations with China

Despite the dispute over the Sprat Islands, relations with China are good. Trade between the two countries has increased significantly in the 2010s, and now China is Malaysia’s largest importing country.

During Najib Razak’s time as prime minister (2009–2018), Chinese investment in infrastructure development in Malaysia increased significantly, while Malaysia’s government debt grew rapidly. A series of agreements were signed on joint initiatives under China’s huge infrastructure project BRI (Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road), where a number of train lines, road systems and ports, from China in the east to Europe in the west, are linked. When Mahathir Mohamad took over the Prime Minister’s post in 2018, a review of the contracts with China was promised. Several projects were temporarily halted and an important agreement on a railway line through Malaysia was renegotiated with a 30 percent cost reduction for Malaysia as a result.

Cooperations with China in the field of energy and defense have been extended. China has also financially supported Malaysia in connection with the 1MDB scandal (see Current Policy).

Strengthened ties to the United States

The United States is another important trading partner and one of the largest foreign investors. Malaysia and the United States cooperate on a number of security issues, including in the fight against terrorism.

Relations between the two countries have traditionally been good, with a few exceptions. For example, during his first term as prime minister in 1981–2003, Mahathir Mohamad gladly criticized what he saw as the Western racism and moral decay. In particular, he turned to the attempts to “impose” on Asia the Western view of human rights and democracy. During the Asian crisis in 1997, Mahathir accused “foreign speculators” of deliberately undermining Malaysia’s economy. A special target was US financier George Soros, and anti-Semitic outpourings of Mahathir aroused strong anger in the US Congress.

Gradually, Malaysian-American relations were normalized, but a few years later Malaysia’s reputation was damaged by the prison sentences against Anwar Ibrahim (see Modern History) and by the 1MDB scandal.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Malaysia has taken a stand for the Palestinians and lacks diplomatic relations with Israel. Najib Razak, as prime minister, received harsh criticism from, among others, Israel when, in January 2013, as the first leader outside the Arab world, he visited the democratically elected but terrorist-labeled Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

From February 2017, relations with North Korea deteriorated significantly when North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother Kim Jong-Nam was poisoned by two Southeast Asian women at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The approach led the mind to North Korea’s security service. When the trial against the women began in October of that year, they both said that they had been tricked into believing that the murder was a joke that would be part of an entertainment program on TV. The conflict with North Korea included, among other things, the handling of Kim Jong-Nam’s remnants and a departure ban temporarily imposed on Malaysians living in North Korea and vice versa. Both women were released unexpectedly in the spring of 2019, probably following pressure from their home countries, Vietnam and Indonesia (for more details, see Calendar).


In July 2014, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore began to jointly patrol the Strait of Malacca in an attempt to stop the piracy operations there. Since 2016, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have been conducting joint naval exercises, which a year later were extended to include air and ground combat forces. The main objectives of the exercises were to curb kidnappings and Islamic terrorism.


Army: 80,000 men (2017)

The air Force: 15,000 men (2017)

The fleet: 14,000 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 1.1 percent (2017)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 5.0 percent (2017)