Danaletchumi Langaswaran (Socialist Party of Malaysia): Building regional solidarity against war and imperialism


[Editor's note: The following is an edited version of the talk given by Danaletchumi Langaswaran (Parti Sosialis Malaysia/Socialist Party of Malaysia) at Ecosocialism 2024. You can view her presentation along with those of Aaron Pedrosa (Partido Lakas ng Masa/Party of the Labouring Masses, the Philippines) and Sam Wainwright (Socialist Alliance, Australia), in the above video.]

We are entering a new phase of global capitalism in which the United States-dominated post-Cold War unipolar world order is crumbling. In this new phase, the old powers are in decline but the new powers have yet to fully develop their strength. 

US imperialist hegemony is clearly in decline, both in political and socio-economic terms. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was the world’s sole superpower. It had the economic and military strength, and weight within global institutions, to force other countries to implement neoliberal economic policies. But its military strength has been overstretched by its catastrophic military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the 2008 economic crisis has deeply impacted its economy. These factors have contributed to its declining influence. Likewise, the disastrous effects of US-promoted neoliberal economic policies in many countries has led to the United States losing credibility, which in turn has made it harder to enforce its economic policies abroad. The United States is trying to maintain its economic, political and military superiority in the region, primarily by seeking to contain its main rival, China. We can see this through the trade partnerships it pursues, the military alliances it has formed (for example with South Korea or with Australia, through the AUKUS security pact), and the new military bases it has in the Philippines

Meanwhile, we have the rising influence of emerging powers, such as China, who are seeking to challenge US imperialism’s dominance at the global level. We also have US allies, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, establishing closer relations with countries the United States deems as “not-friendly” to help pursue their own geopolitical ambitions. While these smaller emerging powers might not be challenging US imperialism at the global level, they are advancing their own geopolitical interests at the regional level, in some cases seeking to revive dreams of past empires, such as the Ottoman Empire in Turkey’s case.

China’s role in the Asia-Pacific region is quite complex. With the exception of Vietnam, which China invaded over four decades ago, most countries in the region have peacefully coexisted with China. More recently, however, China has triggered disputes in Southeast Asian waters by building artificial islands and sending military vessels to patrol disputed areas. This has created certain tensions and anxieties among governments in Southeast Asia over whether China poses a threat to their country. The ambition of Beijing to “reunify” Taiwan with China without abandoning the use of military means to achieve this nationalist objective is also giving ammunition to US imperialism to increasingly militarise the region, thus creating instabilities and threats of war from time to time.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are another flashpoint for intensified geopolitical conflict that impact the Asia Pacific region.

The differing views of Malaysian leaders 

When we look at the views of Malaysian leaders, we can see differences in terms of whom they support. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, for example, was more anti-US, having said in 2019 he would prefer to side with China if Malaysia was forced to take sides in the trade war. On the other hand, current prime minister Anwar Ibrahim has been more pro-US, while trying to not pick sides amid US-China geopolitical tension. In September 2023, Ibrahim made efforts to attract more investment and trade to Malaysia through meetings with several US giant companies, while in May 2024 he received the US-ASEAN Business Council Delegation To Maximize U.S.-Malaysia Business Relationship. In a recent interview, Ibrahim said he would continue doing business with China but stressed he had no intention of antagonising the United States.

During the Cold War and the two decades after, Malaysia was close to the US and strongly influenced by its policies and economic thinking. More recently, however, due to the US’ decline and closer economic relationships with China (which has overtaken the US as Malaysia’s biggest trading partner), Malaysia has started drifting away from US influence. It is evident that the government is moving closer to other countries, even if the US still has some influence in Malaysia. When disputes have emerged with China — for example in the South China Sea — the government has not adopted an aggressive stand. While protesting that Chinese vessels have crossed into Malaysian waters, it has refrained from beating the war drum. There are tensions, but not to the extent that they threaten regional military conflict.

Public opinion towards the US and China

As for the general public, the large majority among the Malay community (which makes up 60% of the Malaysian population) are against the United States because of Israel’s war on Palestine, in which the US is providing arms to Israel. There is an ongoing boycott of US and Israeli products and food chain companies in Malaysia. Many Malaysians were also not impressed with the way the US handled the COVID pandemic, and are unhappy that COVID vaccines were stockpiled by advanced countries rather than made available to poorer countries. 

Most of the Chinese community in Malaysia (24% of the total population) are happy with the emergence of China and feel proud that it is taking a strong stance against the United States on the Taiwan issue. They feel the US is being too aggressive with regards to Taiwan. PSM believes that the Taiwan issue can only be resolved through Cross-Strait peaceful negotiations based on respecting the right of Taiwanese people to self-determination.

PSM’s assessment of the US and China

The US and Chinese economies are both organised on capitalist principles: goods are produced for profit and are exchanged in the market, workers work for wages, and big capitalists in both countries are getting richer all the time. But there are significant differences between China and the US. For example: 

  • The US Congress is controlled by billionaires, the arms industry and giant pharmaceutical companies. In China, the Communist Party is in control, and has acted against the interests of certain groups of capitalists (Alibaba, tuition industry, social media platforms, etc.)
  • US foreign policy is greatly influenced by the military-industrial complex. As a result, the US regularly intervenes militarily in other countries and has started many wars. It maintains hundreds of military bases around the world. China has not intervened militarily in any other country since the Korean War, apart from its border war with Vietnam in 1979. 
  • The US has a much higher GDP per capita, but channels a lot of this economic surplus towards the military and not the people. China, despite being poorer in terms of GDP per capita, has managed to utilise a significant part of the surplus to benefit the people through transport infrastructure, housing and healthcare and rapidly developing renewable energy. During the COVID pandemic, China built a multi-storey hospital in just 10 days.

Many contradictions continue to exist in China given the lack of workers’ democracy and concentration of power in the hands of party bureaucrats. But while China and the US are both capitalist, when it comes to its practices and systems China is better because it seems on the surface more concerned for the welfare of the people. This is due to the government being controlled by Communist Party and not by billionaires and arms manufacturers, as is the case in the United States. 

PSM actions

Having been built by elite groups and imperialist powers, Malaysia is still not fully independent. Even today, its economy and politics are controlled by the 1% of billionaires and elites, and thus do not benefit the people. The PSM has been involved in numerous anti-imperialist actions. These include:

  • Mobilising as part of the global anti-Iraq war protests that took place on February 15, 2003, with a protest in front of the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
  • Highlighting and campaigning against the bad effects of the US-Malaysia FTA in 2008 ,which was subsequently called off. When Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) negotiations started in 2013, PSM formed a coalition against the TPPA, organised campaigns and protests, and handed over a memorandum against the agreement. While the TPPA was endorsed by the Malaysian government, it was not implemented as US president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement. The TPPA was then changed to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Malaysia has signed that agreement, despite protests by the coalition PSM is a part of.
  • Leading a protest in 2018 in front of the US Embassy to voice opposition to US plans to attack Syria and against US military actions in Syria.
  • In 2020, PSM led a protest against any US war on Iran outside the US embassy, calling for an end to military action against Iran. 
  • Last year, PSM released a statement to stop the Ukraine war and handed a memorandum to both the European Union Office in Kuala Lumpur as well as the Russian embassy.
  • PSM has joined protests, marches, and rallies, and released statements against Israel’s genocide in Gaza. We also did some briefing sessions for members about the conflict. PSM was part of a group that occupied a car park about 50 metres from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur for a week in February. 
  • PSM youth wing leads a coalition called Gegar Amerika that supports Palestine and has organised protests in front of the US Embassy.

Prospects for building regional peace and solidarity

There are prospects for building solidarity, but left and people’s groups in the region must work together for it.

At the height of the Cold War, ASEAN declared Southeast Asia a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in 1971. The declaration, which was signed by ASEAN’s five founding states, stressed their commitment to “the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states” and “the right of every state, large or small, to lead its national existence free from outside interference in its internal affairs”. To this end, “the neutralisation of South East Asia” was viewed as a “desirable objective” that should be explored and realised. In reality, however, ASEAN was established with the US support to contain the influence of Communism, shape the terms of Sino-US competition and rapprochement, and deepen the US presence in Southeast Asia.

In June 2022, a group of Southeast Asian left parties, including the PSM, raised the need to “promote and advance progressive regional peace initiatives”. The statement lists certain peace initiatives, including the closure of all US military bases in the Asia-Pacific, which we see as a main factor contributing to escalating tensions in the region. It also demands, among other things, the dismantlement of all imperialist intelligence infrastructure, upholding the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone Treaty and expanding the nuclear weapon-free zone treaty to the entire Asia Pacific region. 

But another important peace initiative we need to take is bolstering working class solidarity and internationalism from below. We cannot just rely on governments — the movements, the grassroots, need to promote solidarity against military escalation in the region, wherever this is happening. For example, transnational grassroots movements could bring together different forces for joint actions on certain issues. If there is a conflict between countries — for example, there have at times been tensions between Malaysia and Indonesia — we could get the left in both countries to demonstrate to help defuse tensions. Such actions could be very important. More importantly, we need to organise movements at home capable of capturing political power. This would give us more space to promote peace and avoid conflicts among countries in the region.

The left should be under no illusions that the emerging so-called multipolar world will help our struggles. Our struggles will always depend on on-the-ground organising and our ability to build movements capable of challenging the capitalist order. A multipolar world will not do this for us. Of course, a multipolar world provides us with a new situation, new openings, new opportunities and new challenges when it comes to organising struggles. We need to understand these new dynamics that a multipolar world unleashes. But we should be under no illusions that a multipolar world is good for the left. 

The left, whether in government or opposition, should push Global South governments to uphold a position of non-alignment in the face of geopolitical rivalries among major powers, such as the US, Russia and China, and refuse to support particular camps or be dragged into endless conflicts. That is not the way forward for the left. At the same time, non-alignment and non-interference in domestic affairs should not stop the left and progressives from building peoples-to-peoples movement and solidarity between struggles. 

As the left, we need to build solidarity while building a movement with a progressive program for international peace that is capable of taking power. We should have no illusions in right-wing governments or governments that only seek a better foothold within a multipolar world. It is meaningless to the working class to have a multipolar world if the same repressive regimes are in power.

These issues are very difficult; there are still a lot of discussions to be had. Here, in Malaysia, we are holding conferences and events to discuss and debate these issues. How to deal with these new situations is a dilemma for the left. What we need is further discussion and a greater understanding of, for example, China’s rise, the new challenges we face internationally and its impacts on struggles domestically. We need more debates and discussions to enhance our understanding of the situation, and develop more concrete and useful strategies for advancing our struggles without subordinating them to the interests of imperialism.

Danaletchumi (Dana) Langaswaran is a labour rights activist in the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) based in Perak state.