15 OCT, 2014: –
Why is Malaysia pushing so hard for a seat on the United Nations’ Security Council? What does it hope to achieve? And, how much has it spent on this quest?
This Thursday the United Nations will hold a vote on five seats up for grabs on its Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions, apply military action, and recommend the appointment of the U.N. Secretary-General.
Besides the five permanent seats accorded to the post-World War II big powers of the U.S., China, UK, France and Russia, there are ten non-permanent seats with two year terms. The last time Malaysia held a seat was 16 years ago.
Six countries – Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and Venezuela – are competing for the five seats. Angola, Venezuela, and Malaysia are expected to be shoo-ins for seats on the Council as they have secured the support of their respective regional blocs of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. New Zealand, Spain, and Turkey will be racing neck-to-neck for the final two seats.
International politics is no less murky and cut-throat than Malaysian politics. Influence is bought, sold, and traded. Competition for the non-permanent seats on the Security Council is often fierce because the rewards are great.
A Harvard Business School paper, “How Much Is a Seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations” by Ilyana Kuziemko and Eric Werker found that “a country’s U.S. aid increases by 59 percent and its U.N. aid by 8 percent when it rotates onto the council.” The flow of money increases in years when “key diplomatic events take place”. The flow of aid from the U.S. is more pronounced in years when the U.S. is engaged in major overseas invasions. The increase in U.N. aid is strongly tied to UNICEF, the children’s fund, which is dominated by the U.S.
Thus, Security Council membership appears to allow countries to extract rents in the form of U.S. aid bribes in addition to the other political bargaining chips that can be traded with other countries. Countries who table resolutions at the Security Council usually prefer to pass them unanimously; achieving this can take considerable diplomatic capital.
Malaysia has been lobbying intensely for a Security Council seat over the last few years.
Prime Minister Najib Razak unveiled his Global Movement of Moderates (GMM) in 2010. GMM has primarily been an international campaign because any domestic association of the Najib Administration with moderation has been undermined by perceived close ties between an increasingly right-leaning Umno and NGOs calling for aggressive responses to inter-ethnic issues, such as PERKASA and ISMA.
Moderation stands in stark contrast to the Prime Minister’s heavy-handed use of the Sedition Act to suppress speech by journalists, academics, students, lawyers, and politicians.
The image of moderation put forward by Najib’s GMM plays on a U.S. stereotype of Malaysia as a moderate Muslim nation that is compliant with U.S. geopolitical interests, in contrast to Muslim-majority countries such as Iran and Syria.
Najib and his GMM were featured in a 2013 event hosted by the influential New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, an organisation that boasts many past U.S. Secretaries of State and National Security Advisors as members.
The government-linked media has reported that Wisma Putra has been conducting high-level visits around the world to lobby for a Security Council seat. Delegates have reportedly traveled as far as Samoa and Kazakhstan to secure support.
Najib’s foreign policy thus far has been rational and pragmatic in that he has recognised that both the U.S. and China are crucial to Malaysia’s geopolitical future. He has tried very hard to please both of them with reciprocal state visits.
However, when two elephants fight in the jungle, the mouse deer risks being crushed between them. Washington-based analysts suggest that Najib is presenting himself as an Asia-Pacific outpost for the U.S. in relation to China while attempting to placate China on the other hand.
The U.S. wants Malaysia to sign on to its controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPPA) regional trade and investment pact, an agreement widely seen as an attempt to ringfence China in the Asia-Pacific.
China is a far more important trading partner to Malaysia than is the U.S., but it has also made aggressive territorial claims on James Shoal/Zhengmu Reef 80km off the coast of Sarawak and 1,800km away from China.
Since both the U.S. and China hold Permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council it is likely that Malaysia has made promises and assurances to both.
While increased diplomatic influence for Malaysia is welcome, there is a question about the domestic costs it may incur.
If Malaysia receives increased flows of aid from the U.S. how will this affect our stance on the Palestine-Israel conflict? Is signing on to the TPPA one of the bargaining chips?
How much has been spent on lobbying for Malaysia’s Security Council seat? Malaysia ranks amongst the world’s most corrupt countries as raised in surveys by Ernst & Young and KPMG. Costing for the Security Council campaign appears absent from the Budget of recent years.
A Security Council seat could also be leveraged as a bargaining tool to reduce foreign criticism of Malaysian human rights, especially by the U.S. and in fora such as the U.N. Human Rights Commission. The Najib Administration has moved from the repression of religious minorities to a full-blown crackdown using the Sedition Act. If the plan to incarcerate Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim goes ahead then Malaysia must be prepared to face international criticism. It is an opportune time for Umno’s repressive domestic policy to be backed by international diplomatic capital.
YIN SHAO LOONG