By Fu Congcong (Indonesian Studies Center at BFSU)
At the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is visiting China from April 24 to 28 to attend the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing. This is Mahathir’s 10th visit to China as the prime minister of Malaysia, as well as his second visit to this country as prime minister of the Pakatan Harapan coalition government since the regime changed last year. China-Malaysia relations are entering a new era. China has always considered Malaysia an important cooperation partner and a priority in its peripheral diplomacy. The governments of the two countries are seizing opportunities brought by the 45th anniversary of their diplomatic relations to consolidate traditional friendship and expand space for mutually-beneficial cooperation.
Support for Belt and Road Initiative
In February, Mahathir confirmed his attendance of the second BRF as the first ASEAN state leader to do so. During the visit, Mahathir will meet with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Mahathir is also planning to visit several Chinese enterprises, especially high-tech ones, and witness signing of many cooperation agreements. At the BRF, he will attend the opening ceremony, high-level meetings, welcome banquet and the leaders’ roundtable, and will deliver a speech.
By 2018, China had been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 10 consecutive years and the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Malaysia’s manufacturing industry for three consecutive years. In 2018, their bilateral trade reached US$108.6 billion. In terms of trade and investment, Mahathir hopes to attract more high-tech investment. Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian indicated that palm oil trade will be a priority on the agenda of the upcoming visit. Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah expressed hope that both sides will jointly push cooperation on “Two Countries, Twin Parks” (China-Malaysia Qinzhou Industrial Park and Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park), the flagship pair of cooperation projects involving the two governments.
The joint statement released by the two governments at the end of Mahathir’s most recent visit to China on August 20, 2018 declared that “Malaysia welcomes, supports and will continue to actively participate in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).” Furthermore, Mahathir has repeatedly expressed support for the BRI on various occasions and refuted the so-called “China threat.” He pointed out that China has made great contributions to the development of world economy, especially digital technology, gaining a lead position globally. He expressed hope that Malaysia would learn from China according to the policy of “Look East 2.0”.
Mahathir hopes to deepen mutual understanding with China and understand China’s latest policy. “Early in our diplomatic relations (between Malaysia and China), China was a very poor country and very backward,” he remarked in an interview, “But it has made tremendous progress, which will influence Malaysia-China relations.” Mahathir hopes that during the visit, he can elaborate on Malaysia’s views on the BRI and relations with China.
An “Anti-China Hawk”?
With traditional deep and firm friendship, China and Malaysia are comprehensive strategic partners and pragmatic cooperation partners. Over their 45 years of diplomatic relations, the two countries have always been helping and supporting each other on their own path of development as good neighbors, good friends and good partners. Rumors have floated that Mahathir is a “pro-Japan and anti-China hawk,” which sparked considerable speculation on the development of Malaysia-China relations. Mahathir’s upcoming five-day visit to China will forcefully rebuke the rumors of Mahathir as an “anti-China hawk.”
In his interview with the South China Morning Post and The New Straits Times, Mahathir clearly indicated that Malaysia favors economic cooperation with China. If his country was forced to choose in the current situation between China and the United States, he indicated that he would not choose the “unpredictable” United States, but would prefer to benefit from the continuous development of China. On April 15, 2019, Mahathir held a press conference on the resumption of work on the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a cooperation project with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). Soon thereafter, he announced that the stalled Bandar Malaysia project would also be revived, which has injected new impetus into Malaysia-China pragmatic economic and trade cooperation.
People-to-people exchanges between China and Malaysia have been expanded, covering a wide range of areas. Malaysia is one of the Asian countries with the most favorable views of China. China has been Malaysia’s largest non-ASEAN source of tourists for seven consecutive years. Nearly 3 million Chinese tourists visited Malaysia in 2018. At the same time, the number of students in each other’s country is also rising, with about 15,735 Chinese students in Malaysia, and nearly 9,480 Malaysian students in China. Frequent people-to-people exchanges and colorful educational cooperation have laid a profound public opinion foundation for closer bilateral relations.
Joint Efforts for High-Quality Belt and Road
Today, a foundation has been laid for the BRI to deliver tangible benefits, from concept to action and from vision to reality. While promoting the upgrading of China-Malaysia relations, the two countries are exploring ways to promote substantive, results-oriented cooperation and deliver greater benefits to people in both countries. As President Xi pointed out, the three priorities in building the Belt and Road are projects, markets and financial support. He said that efforts should be made to promote exchange in education, science and technology, culture, sports, tourism, health, archaeology and other realms to effectively improve people’s livelihood. Enterprises should standardize their investment and management tactics, comply with the law and regulations, pay attention to environmental protection and fulfill every social responsibility to be model ambassadors on the routes of the Belt and Road.
To ensure high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, both sides need to perform several important tasks. First, relevant projects should meet the needs of Malaysia’s development strategy in terms of location, region and industry. By doing so, production capacity cooperation can be carried out in infrastructure to meet the needs of different localities. Second, the two sides should increase cooperation in conserving the environment to ensure sustainable development while conducting large-scale interconnectivity projects and join hands to build a green Silk Road. Third, the two sides should adhere to the principle of openness, fairness and transparency in project operation. Prevailing international rules should be followed in construction of the Belt and Road, with fairness and transparency in project plans, environmental impact assessments (EIA), legal space, employment, bidding and other realms. Fourth, the two sides should further promote people-to-people exchange since closer ties between peoples have proven an effective lubricant for high-quality Belt and Road cooperation. For example, the two sides can promote bilateral personnel exchange, cultural exchange and educational cooperation in connection with commemorative activities celebrating the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It is a year for China and Malaysia to jointly commemorate their long-term traditional friendship and look forward to a brighter future. The upcoming second BRF will enlarge the China’s circle of friends along the Belt and Road, empowering it to better interact with the world. The BRI is not a foreign aid scheme, a tool to advance any geopolitical agenda, or a zero-sum game board, but a platform for practical cooperation and interconnected development. Both China and Malaysia should seize every opportunity to promote the development of bilateral relations to achieve more shared benefits.