Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan embarked on a two-day visit to Malaysia last week, his second since taking the highest office in August 2018. His visited included a broad agenda focused on expanding investment and boosting Malaysian-Pakistani bilateral ties.
Khan met with his Malaysian counterpart, Mahathir Mohamad, someone Khan has shown great admiration towards and previously praised for his reform agenda as well. The two leaders discussed a range of issues including the regional and international political situation, collaboration in the fields of science and technology and much more.
Strengthening Malaysia-Pakistan Ties
Though separated by vast swathes of land and large expanses of water, the two countries have found common ground lately on multiple issues. Islamabad has found a close ally in Kuala Lumpur that is willing to back its stance internationally. That support manifested in the form of Malaysia condemning New Delhi’s siege of Kashmir in August, 2019 and denouncing India’s blockade since then. Mohammed criticized this move more than once, even risking his trade relations with one of the largest markets in the world in terms of India.
That eventually led to a fallout as India restricted its imports of palm oil from Malaysia, a major source of proceeds for the southeast Asian republic. In fact, New Delhi was Kuala Lumpur’s seventh largest export destination and sold just palm oil worth $1.5 billion in 2018-19.
Khan Promises To Boost Trade With Malaysia To Make Up For Kuala Lumpur’s Falling Out With India
Khan, for his part, promised to increase palm imports from Malaysia as a way to compensate for the latter’s losses but Pakistan’s trade with the Southeast Asian country is a mere fraction in comparison to what it enjoyed formerly with India. Nonetheless, Mohammed seems to be undeterred as even in the latest meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, he endorsed his earlier stance on Kashmir. In fact, the text explicitly mentioned the situation in the Indian-held territory of the valley and called for resolving the dispute.
The Saudi Factor
The growing ties between Malaysia and Pakistan don’t sit too well with another Pakistani ally, Saudi Arabia, which is indicative of the internal rift between rival Muslim blocs. In fact, it was at the behest of Riyadh that Islamabad was forced to back out of the Kuala Lumpur summit in December—which it masterminded and helped organize but could not attend at the last moment due to pressure from Saudi Arabia—dealing an extremely embarrassing blow to Khan’s government.
Addressing a joint press conference with his Malaysian counterpart, Khan said: “Unfortunately, our friends, who are very close to Pakistan as well, felt that somehow the conference was going to divide the ummah [the global Muslim community]. It was clearly a misconception because that was not the purpose of the conference as evident from when the conference took place.”
“Malaysia and Pakistan will further increase collaborative efforts in international fora in upholding the true values of Islam and in addressing the common challenges facing the Ummah, including Islamophobia and the rights of Muslim minorities,” the joint statement issued at the end of the visit affirmed.
Malaysia, Pakistan And Turkey’s Future Ties: ‘Broad Areas Of Strategic Cooperation’
It continued that “Malaysia and Pakistan together with Turkey will proceed with the initiatives in broad areas of strategic cooperation under the Joint Committee Meeting (JCM) to complement the efforts by the community of the Muslim world.” However, just in the same breath, the text added “while being mindful of the centrality of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and in this regard,” thus trying to placate Saudi Arabia at the same time.
How much of that appeasement worked is yet to be seen, but from the looks of it, Khan seems to be growing impatient on the issue of Kashmir. In Malaysia, he criticized the Muslim community for the lack of unity. “The reason is that we have no voice and there is a total division amongst [us]. We can’t even come together as a whole on the OIC meeting on Kashmir,” Pakistan’s PM was quoted as saying.
These comments came just days after the OIC’s extraordinary meeting that saw the rejection of Trump’s peace plan but again, had no mention of Kashmir. However, some news reports since then have suggested that Riyadh is willing to advance this issue at the Council of Foreign Ministers summit in April.
Kuala Lumpur has also turned out to be a godsend for Islamabad in its dealings with the Financial Action Task Force. The Paris-based watchdog put Pakistan on the grey list for lax regulation on counter-terrorism financing and anti-money laundering over a year ago and has review due this month. And just in time, during Khan’s visit, Malaysia endorsed his guest’s efforts.
Growing Cooperation On Malaysia-Pakistan Trade And Investment
Even beyond politics, there is growing cooperation between both countries. Malaysia has lately become a major destination for Pakistani expatriates who then send back remittances—a major source of foreign exchange for the embattled economy struggling on the external account front—with 2018-19 inflows amounting to around $1.6 billion.
In the sphere of investment too, there has been notable progress. Last year Proton—the state-owned company and Malaysia’s second largest automaker—set up an assembly plant in Pakistan with cars expected to roll out in a few months.
Khan was lucky on his latest visit in that Mohammed graciously let ghosts of the past be set aside. However, in order to truly expand Pakistan’s ties with Malaysia, Islamabad will have to ensure an independent foreign policy that cannot be swayed at the first sign of pressure from another ally.