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Think Tanks’ Role in ASEAN’s Fight Against Foreign Influence


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The issue of foreign influence in domestic affairs is a challenge that resonates with many countries worldwide, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

are increasingly finding themselves at the center of this geopolitical tug-of-war as major powers vie for influence in the region. In this article, we delve into the complex dynamics of foreign influence in ASEAN, with a focus on China’s expanding footprint and the role of publicly funded think tanks in shaping policy responses.


The Great Power Struggle


As ASEAN nations navigate the shifting sands of global politics, they must grapple with the intentions of various great powers, including Western nations and, more notably, China. While Western powers’ intentions may be subject to debate, China’s ambitions have been undeniably explicit. On one hand, it presents itself as a champion of multilateralism and international trade. On the other, it unveils maps that threaten to deprive ASEAN states of their rightful access to the South China Sea and its abundant resources.


Amid these challenges, it is worth reflecting on the role of publicly funded think tanks, such as the Institute of Strategic & International Studies (ISIS) and the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER), in shaping policies and providing expert guidance to governments and the public. Have these institutions lived up to their potential, particularly in the face of complex and potentially perilous issues like territorial disputes?


Silence in the Face of Existential Challenges


A striking observation is the relative silence from think tanks like ISIS and MIER following the unveiling of China’s 2023 Standard Map, which poses significant challenges to Malaysia’s sovereignty. As a smaller nation in comparison to superpowers, Malaysia’s voice may appear faint, but it carries weight in global trade, particularly as an exporter of critical items such as rare earth minerals and microchips.


The question that arises is whether these publicly funded think tanks have forgotten their vital role in offering expertise and policy guidance. Malaysia’s loss of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) could have far-reaching consequences, making it imperative for these institutions to speak out and provide strategic counsel.


Unseen Influence Operations


While foreign influence operations may be less known in Malaysia, other countries have uncovered covert efforts to manipulate public opinion and elections. The United Front Work Department (UFWD), an organization responsible for coordinating domestic and foreign influence operations, has been scrutinized in India, Canada, Taiwan, and Australia. It infiltrates academic, media, and other spheres to exert influence.


Balancing Economic Interests and Sovereignty


Recognizing China’s significant role in Malaysia’s international trade and economic development, it is crucial to ensure that this partnership aligns with the principles of “win-win” cooperation. The loss of Malaysia’s EEZ underscores the need for think tanks, academia, media, and society to remain vigilant against undue influence.


Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has advocated for ASEAN to chart its own course, emphasizing the importance of safeguarding sovereignty. Achieving this vision necessitates transparency, checks and balances, and due diligence to protect against unwelcome strings attached to economic partnerships.




In a world where geopolitical realities are complex and ever-evolving, Malaysia and its ASEAN neighbors must navigate with open eyes and heightened awareness. While policy strategies may be underway to safeguard national interests, their effectiveness is contingent upon proactive communication and public awareness. Malaysia’s sovereignty should remain sacrosanct, and its response to foreign influence should be rooted in a well-informed and united approach.

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