The East Asia Division in the External Affairs Ministry of India covers big economies like China and Japan. China is always the big focus in the region not only for the foreign ministry but also for commerce, defence and home ministries as the large northern neighbour poses multiple challenges. India's relations with Japan as well as large economies of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) like Singapore are on a very friendly course.
But now the external affairs, commerce and home ministries have sat up to take up a smaller country in Southeast Asia as relations with Malaysia, an ASEAN member, have deteriorated rapidly over the last five months. There is inter-ministerial brainstorming in these ministries on how to deal with the new aggression of Malaysia under its nonagenarian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who has been vocal in his opposition to India's security clampdown on Jammu and Kashmir and also the Citizenship Amendment Act. Angered over Mahathir's policy, commerce ministry decided to choke the import of palm oil, which is one of the major exports to India from the Indian Ocean nation. Quality checks on information technology hardware being sourced by Indian companies from Malaysia have been ordered. The sore point of Malaysia providing shelter for Mumbai preacher Zakir Naik, accused of inspiring terror groups in India and Bangladesh, has become magnified with the soaring rhetoric of Mahathir.
Even though his organisation of a summit of selected Islamic nations was seen as a move against the domination of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) by Saudi Arabia, the special invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was taken seriously by the Indian government. There were concerns that Khan would use the meetings of heads of governments of Malaysia, Iran, Turkey and Qatar to push for a resolution against the security steps in Jammu and Kashmir. But Khan pulled out of the summit on pressure from Saudi Arabia which is the largest economic partner of Pakistan, and intense diplomatic efforts by New Delhi ensured there was no critical resolution against India.
Malaysia has been a benign trade partner since the historic visit of P V Narasimha Rao in 1995 (for a summit with a then younger Mahathir) as part of India's Look East Policy over the last quarter century. Malaysia and India have many common threads. Such was the importance of the country with a mix of majority Muslim, and significant minorities of Buddhist, Christian and Hindu populations that there were complaints that Malaysian palm oil was accorded easy import into India at the expense of domestic oil production, including of coconut oil.
The friendship continued even after Mahathir retired in 2003 and his successors Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (2003-09) and Najib Razak (2009-18) maintained the same level of relationship. Mahathir was brought out of retirement in 2018 as the voters rejected the long-time ruling party over corruption charges and he came to power promising abolition of the unpopular Goods and Services Tax.
Indian strategic experts are also looking on whether there is pressure from China or Pakistan on Malaysia to take up its current stand. But Mahathir, described as the old fox, has said his country cannot retaliate against a big country like India, which normally imports more from Malaysia than what is exported to the smaller country. But in a placatory move, Malaysian government wants to increase imports from India to show that political toughness should not be linked to economic relations. But New Delhi does not accept criticism from any country into what are India's internal affairs. This is the message given to United States Congress, and now to European Union Parliament, and the same message has gone to Malaysia.