By Collins Chong Yew Keat

KUALA UMPUR, Malaysia: Regional moves to expand power influence and friendshoring efforts have been intensifying and reflected in the array of manoeuvrings amidst the volatile hard power and security tussles.


The US Pacific Fleet started to host the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) starting early this month, the world’s largest international maritime exercise in Hawaii, which will last until August.

Held every other year, RIMPAC brings together the armed forces of 29 countries for five weeks of training for this year, with the goal of strengthening a free and open Indo-Pacific, with the participation of more than 25,000 personnel.

Established in 1971 by Australia, Canada and the US, this year’s drills include the militaries of South Korea, Japan and India, as well as countries in Southeast and South Asia, Latin America and seven European nations.

Military leaders say RIMPAC allows greater interoperability capacities and readiness to combat future traditional and non traditional threats, but also is intended to foster deeper trust and understanding.

It also serves Washington’s interests in the defence and political friendshoring. The US has continued to advance multilateral interregional partnerships, established new defence agreements, and developed its military capacity across the Indo Pacific, promoting Beijing’s responses where it has increased its military exercises around Taiwan and has repeatedly clashed with the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Russia has joined the fray to deepen presence and influence in the region. In the past two months, President Vladimir Putin made high-profile visits to China, North Korea and Vietnam, seeking support and validation for the war in Ukraine and in expanding economic and trade fallback which will provide resilience and guardrails for greater economic, political and military cooperation.

The RIMPAC exercise centres around combat and contingency training on land, in the air and at sea, with 150 aircraft, 40 surface ships, three submarines  conducting amphibious landings, urban combat training, anti-submarine warfare, ship sinking exercises, as well as cyber and space operations, emphasising a “robust and complex tactical phase, comprehensive humanitarian and disaster relief operations, and integrated multi-domain warfare”.

Washington aims to send a clear message to both foes and allies alike, where just days before RIMPAC, the US conducted strategic bombing drills, sent a nuclear-power aircraft carrier to the Korean Peninsula, and carried out fighting drills around Taiwan and the South China Sea along with its allies.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed that the Asia Pacific was at the heart of US security strategy, arguing in the Shangri La Dialogue, that “The United States can be secure only if Asia is secure”.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg  argued that “What happens in Europe matters for Asia and what happens in Asia matters for us.”

The RIMPAC is a clear indication of interest and wariness of all players participating, that they are preparing for all possibilities on the table in facing a potential future conflict or war in a fast changing power equation and power intent in the region.

China participated in RIMPAC in 2014 and 2016, but was excluded in 2018, and the same for this year.

Seoul and Hanoi’s New Power Friendship

Vietnam and South Korea just announced deeper partnerships this month in key areas in semiconductor and Artificial Intelligence. Both needed a new economic transition change, and South Korea has been a critical economic and investment partner in new economic changes.

In areas of semiconductor, Vietnam sees this as the next critical economic transformation, and has been eager to join the global bandwagon, especially in targeting the right developing partner that can offer the expertise and experience in building the industry from scratch.

China is seen as less important or strategic, based on geopolitical realities and the fact that China lacks the know-how and experience in the first stage semiconductor development and will not want to be at its dictate that can harm its geopolitical interests.

Vietnam offers a high quality young population segment that can fuel capable human capital in this industry and its AI development, and South Korea will also want to leverage on this.

Seoul can get higher returns in terms of expanding its soft power presence and in serving as a vital new economic sectors partnership for Vietnam, which will also complement Seoul’s efforts to target the region in its overall diversification effort and its intent to put a check on China.

Vietnam is eyeing Seoul’s extensive edge and upper hand in providing the needed technological and hard asset know how to create a new quid pro quo mechanism, in seeing how Seoul is also eyeing Vietnam’s strategic advantage in its economic potential, internal consumption and market offering, new potential demographics, and its prized geographical advantage in the Mekong region and in neighbouring China.

South Korea has been a big source of tourism for Hanoi, and the new critical economic sectors’ push for economic transformation in the form of AI and semiconductor is seen as another effort to provide a high value partnership based on these new sectors.

This gives Seoul a new fallback option in strengthening its semiconductor industry by having a new base in the region, and given its proximity to China, also gives Seoul its new economic friendshoring effort to catch up with its defence friendshoring efforts as seen in its quest to deepen ties with Japan and the US for its security needs.

Vietnam provides new economic and defence partnership in this aspect, and providing semiconductor training and joint development creates new trust and spillover impact to Seoul to continue to deepen ties with Hanoi with China in mind.

Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur’s Realisation of Mutual Interdependence

Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Retno L.P. Marsudi visited Malaysia early this month for a new quest of combined positive returns. Retno and Jakarta will want to set an early phase of engagement in setting the right platform for the incoming Prabowo and in setting new trust settings.

Key issues will revolve around domestic and international issues, with protection of workers’ rights and welfare to the involvement of Malaysian institutions and companies in Indonesia’s new economic transition.

While there exist past and existing wariness and fear of one another’s geopolitical interests and hard power and security wariness and hesitancy, both will want to build a new front of new economic and trade potential and in consolidating joint resources.

Both face similar threats and challenges both in traditional and non traditional settings, and both will want to present a more united front in leveraging on the common threat settings and in further consolidating joint responses, especially with pooling resources and policy similarities in commodities and palm oil and external foreign policies.

Both Muslim nation leaders, both will want to play a bigger role in the Middle East and West Asia conundrum, and have expressed agreements to send peacekeeping troops.

While there is a deeper sense of rivalry in getting the key investments in critical areas including Artificial Intelligence, semiconductor, digital and green economy, Electric Vehicle, digital infrastructure and others, Prabowo will also want to leverage on Malaysia’s upcoming potential both in economic and geopolitical power leverage especially with it being the chair for ASEAN for next year.

Prabowo realizes that Malaysia is indispensable in complementing his own vision for Indonesia, and will want to reduce any potential rivalries and disputes, and sees active cooperation and trust building in jointly utilising one another’s strength as the way forward.

Jakarta will want to rely on Kuala Lumpur to complement, support and legitimize and justify its own similar stance of non alignment in the region, and with Malaysia’s inclusion, Jakarta will strengthen its cards and leverage by not overly pivoting to either side. Malaysia also serves as a fallback for Jakarta’s new push for economic friendshoring, and sees the spillover impact from an equally developed Malaysia with it being the base for supply chain and key technologies from both China and the US.

Indonesia still is cognisant of its importance in the radar of Beijing and Washington and Canberra, and will need a soft landing in its regional approach so as to maintain the peace equilibrium.

Jakarta under Prabowo will also want to ensure a stable and peaceful South China Sea, and Malaysia’s approach is similar to this intent, and will thus want Malaysia to continue to project this at the regional level and extra regional level to also prevent Manila from stirring deeper regional power kegs and security dilemmas.

A new wave of power rivalry has long taken shape, and recent momentum only added to the urgent setting by regional powers and extra regional players to reinforce power presence, to mitigate risks, and to reset the trust settings of the region in both deterring and preparing for a war.

*Collins Chong Yew Keat is a Universiti Malaya foreign affairs and security strategist.*