What Does Pakistan & Malaysia’s ‘Camaraderie’ Mean for India?

If the Malaysian PM repeats his criticism against India during Imran Khan’s visit, India-Malaysia ties will worsen.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
Image of Malaysia PM Mahathir (L) and Pakistan PM Imran Khan used for representational purposes.
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Under Saudi pressure, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan decided against participating in the KL summit organised by Malaysia’s 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir last December to discuss issues related to the Islamic Ummah, stretching from governance to identity to security, trade and technology.

Khan’s last minute decision to keep his country entirely away from the summit, after having accepted the invitation and enthusiastically supporting it, starkly profiled to the chagrin of many proud Pakistanis their country’s financial dependency on Saudi charity and the master-serf nature of Saudi-Pakistan ties.

Now, Khan, swallowing his Pathan pride, is in Kuala Lumpur on a two-day bilateral visit to Malaysia, to kiss and make up with Mahathir.

On his part, Mahathir, whose grand-father migrated to Malaysia from the Indian sub-continent and married a Malay lady, and who has demonstrated a soft-corner for Pakistan during his long political career, treated Khan’s volte-face with grace, understanding and maturity.

Snapshot
  • Clearly, Mahathir is unwilling to shut the door on Pakistan, the only Islamic state with nuclear weapons, or Imran — who had stood beside Turkish President Erdoğan and him in New York last September.
  • Pakistan’s dire economic conditions are unlikely to improve anytime soon; this will make it almost impossible to translate Mahathir and Khan’s intentions into reality.
  • As the India-Malaysia bilateral relations took a hit and India signalled that it would reduce, if not eliminate palm oil imports from Malaysia, Mahathir, instead of seeking to repair the damage, defended his remarks. Worse, he spoke critically of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Malaysian PM ‘Unwilling to Shut Door’ on Imran & Pakistan

Clearly, Mahathir was unwilling to shut the door on Pakistan, the only Islamic state with nuclear weapons, or Imran — who had stood beside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and him in New York last September, on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Session. The three leaders had decided to combat Islamophobia and launch a television channel to help further this struggle. For Khan, standing along with the two important Muslim leaders who had raised the constitutional changes of 5 August 2019 in Jammu and Kashmir, was an expression of gratitude and solidarity — but for the Saudis, the Pakistan-Malaysia-Turkey initiative was a manifestation of a gathering challenge to their leadership of the Islamic Ummah.

In 1973, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia engineered the first dramatic oil price rise which led to fabulous financial flows to the country’s treasury. Since then, the Saudi royal family has considered and projected itself as the first family and leader of the Islamic world. It has used its enormous financial clout to ‘persuade’ the poorer Islamic countries to accept its leadership claims. It has loomed large over the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the foremost global body of the Muslim world — all Islamic states are its members.

Significantly, the Saudi royal family adheres to and propagates the doctrines of the austere school of Wahhabi Sunni Islam.

What Saudi Didn’t Expect: Coming Together of Malaysia & Turkey With Iran & Qatar

Only a few Islamic states have had the capacity to stand up to Saudi Arabia. These include Iran — the world’s leading Shia country and enduring and historic rival to Sunni Islam. They also include Turkey which had, till the first World War, fancied itself as the leader of the Islamic world and the overlord of Islam’s holiest cities — Mecca and Medina. As Malaysia gained prosperity under Mahathir’s first period as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, he began to consider himself as not only the moderniser of his country but as the voice of the Islamic and developing world, railing against the iniquities of the global system. This was certainly not to the Saudi liking.

Naturally, the Saudis could not countenance the coming together of Turkey and Malaysia along with Iran and Qatar (which is the only Gulf Arab state to seek to defiantly pursue a foreign policy, at times at odds with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan which they consider a ‘client State’ in many ways).

They turned the screws on Pakistan, and Imran came to heel and kept away from the KL summit. A bilateral visit does not have the overtones of a multilateral ganging up against Saudi failure to addresses the crucial issues of the Islamic Ummah.

Why It’s Impossible to Translate Mahathir & Imran’s Intentions Into Reality

Khan visited Malaysia in 2018, and Mahathir was the guest of honour at Pakistan’s National Day celebrations in 2019. Both leaders want greater bilateral cooperation in trade, industry, technology and defence. This visit will provide opportunities to announce intentions and projects. However, Pakistan’s dire economic conditions are unlikely to improve anytime soon because of its structural problems compounded by the extractions of the army. This will make it almost impossible to translate Mahathir and Khan’s intentions into reality.

Two countries, India and Saudi Arabia, will give special attention to Imran Khan’s visit.

How India-Malaysia Relations Took a Nosedive

The Modi government has been rightly upset at Mahathir’s entirely unnecessary but sharp and continuous criticism of the constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir. In his UNGA speech Mahathir said: “Now, despite the UN Resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir, the country has been invaded and occupied. There may be reasons for this action but it is still wrong”.

As the India-Malaysia bilateral relations took a hit and India signalled that it would reduce, if not eliminate palm oil imports from Malaysia, Mahathir, instead of seeking to repair the damage, defended his remarks. Worse, he spoke critically of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

If Mahathir repeats his critical comments on India during Khan’s visit India-Malaysia relations will only worsen.

At the joint press meet after holding talks with Mahathir, Imran Khan regretted not attending the KL summit because of ‘misconceptions in some Islamic countries close to Pakistan that it will divide the Ummah’. He said that as it had not done so, he would be willing to attend the next summit. Mahathir did not embarrass his guest by being sharp towards his Saudi patrons. But he did nothing to stop Khan from going against India, including in his address to the Malaysian Institute of Strategic Studies.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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