CHINA has been increasingly demonised by the rise of negative narratives, especially regarding the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Observers in the West are particularly critical of China’s strategy of foreign outreach in the developing world, and its connotations of “debt-trap diplomacy”.
The anti-China narrative asserts that China’s international ambitions are to secure influence and strategic assets at the expense of its partners. Ostensibly, China entraps these states with promises of infrastructure projects and financing, then seeks repayment from their debtors through non-monetary means.
With Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first official visit to China in August leading to the postponement of a few China megaprojects, Malaysia has recently been included in this narrative. Malaysia has been painted as a small, defiant state that dared to stand up to the Chinese giant. But is it correct to assess Malaysia as anti-China under the new government?
Anti-China sentiment is not as prevalent in Malaysia as some have argued. Although there were “hot spots” in the lead up to the 14th General Election, it didn’t manifest as the firebrand rhetoric and opposition you’d find in places like Taiwan and Japan.
Malaysia’s relationship with China is multi-layered and complex. Aside from economic links, both share a long history of engagement, as well as cultural affinities.
Depicting the recent cooling of relations as an about-face for Malaysia and its approach to China is exaggerated, as it belies the true intent of policymakers. It also detracts away from the reality that Malaysia’s new government has simply been “cleaning house”, and rebalancing its priorities and economic relations.
Dr Mahathir’s recent address to the UN General Assembly highlighted Malaysia’s foreign policy priorities of mutual respect and benefit. He went on to say that Malaysians want a country that “is a friend to all and an enemy to none”. Only a few months before, he spoke about a “new version of colonialism” while giving a joint press conference with Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing. This thinly veiled allusion to China’s BRI megaprojects in Malaysia paints a mixed picture for the relationship at present. Their cost to Malaysia seems irreconcilable with the idea of mutual benefit.
But China is our most important trade partner, with bilateral trade expected to exceed US$100 billion (RM415.8 billion) this year, according to China’s Ambassador to Malaysia, Bai Tian. China has also been a welcome source of investment in the past, and this fact has not been lost on policymakers, as they have been trying to handle renegotiation exercises for megaprojects both carefully and quietly.
Arguably, the government isn’t discriminating against any particular nation while balancing the books. The truth of the matter is that deferring or outright cancelling the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and gas pipelines could significantly hamper China’s BRI aspirations in Malaysia.
When the total cost of the ECRL became known, it was obvious that it could easily become a white elephant and a prospect that the incumbent government was in no position to entertain.
However, the postponement of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail project on similar grounds to the ECRL, shows the government is scrutinising projects based on their merits. The same goes for the ban on foreign buyers for Forest City in Johor, and the re-tendering of MRT2 contracts.
But that is not to say Malaysia has avoided provoking China completely. In June, Tun Daim Zainuddin, in his advisory role to the government, mentioned about the “tainted” and one-sided contracts that had been signed between China and the previous government.
Dr Mahathir’s recent visit to Japan has also been interpreted as a deliberate slight against China. It should, however, be seen as a measure for revitalising relationships with traditional partners, and diversifying economic linkages.
These developments will have important implications on the Malaysia-China relationship. The most important takeaway is that any change will be gradual, as China is still important to Malaysia’s economy. However, we may soon see Malaysia distancing itself from China’s bandwagon in favour of hedging national interests.
In the end, it makes sense to view Malaysia as a reasonably pragmatic nation, and to bleed away the “us versus them” rhetoric. In the face of rising global tensions, Malaysia simply can’t afford to align itself within the ongoing US-China rivalry.