By Wang Fengjuan
On April 25, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with visiting Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Xi suggested that in the new era, China and Malaysia should make jointly building the Belt and Road a central theme of pragmatic cooperation.
On the eve of the 45th anniversary of China-Malaysia diplomatic relations, China Report ASEAN conducted an exclusive interview with Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian.
China Report ASEAN: Today, the development of China and Malaysia as well as their bilateral relations have entered a new era. How do you evaluate China-Malaysia relations?
Bai Tian: Forty-five years ago, Malaysia took the lead among ASEAN member states in establishing diplomatic relations with China, opening a new chapter of bilateral exchange. Over the last 45 years, regardless of changes in the international and domestic landscape, the general trend of friendship between China and Malaysia has not changedbecause Sino-Malaysian friendship is conducive to the development of both countries and to the fundamental interests of both. Over the years, the two countries have respected and supported each other with close cooperation in international and regional affairs, steadily enhancing political mutual trust.
China firmly stands by China-Malaysia friendship and believes that the new era shows promise for the bilateral relationship. As President Xi noted, the era marks a new historic juncture for bilateral relations. As engines of Asia’s rise, China and Malaysia are important development opportunities and partners of each other. Prime Minister Mahathir was the first Asian leader to refute so-called “China Threat” worries introduced by some in the West. During his visit to China last August, Mahathir again emphasized that China is an influential country and Malaysia’s largest trading partner, and that Malaysia’s friendly policies towards China will not change.
China Report ASEAN: What have China and Malaysia achieved in economic, trade, cultural and people-to-people exchanges over the last 45 years?
Bai Tian: During the first 20 years of China’s reform and opening-up, many Malaysian entrepreneurs invested in businesses in China, making valuable contributions to China’s economic development. At the height of the financial crisis in Southeast Asia, China did not depreciate its currency, providing effective assistance to Malaysia to fend off the negative impact of the crisis.
Despite great uncertainty in the sluggish world economy, two-way economic and trade cooperation between China and Malaysia has continued to grow. China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 10 consecutive years. In 2018, our bilateral trade reached US$108.6 billion. China has been the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Malaysia’s manufacturing industry for three years in a row. The flagship cooperation project “Two Countries, Twin Parks” (China-Malaysia Qinzhou Industrial Park and Malaysia China Kuantan Industrial Park) has set a good example for regional production capacity cooperation. I think Sino Malaysian cooperation has a solid foundation, enormous potential and bright prospects.
Over the last 45 years, friendship between the two peoples has been continuously enhanced. Malaysia is among 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. In 2018, nearly 3 million Chinese tourists visited Malaysia, a year on-year increase of 30 percent, while 1.29 million Malaysian tourists visited China, a year on-year increase of 4.7 percent. The number of students in each other’s countries is also rising, with 15,733 Chinese students currently studying in Malaysia, and 9,479 Malaysian students in China. China has rolled out its first overseas university project: a Malaysian campus of the prestigious Xiamen University, which has enrolled 3,000 students from China, Malaysia and other countries, each accounting for a third of the total.
China Report ASEAN: What has Malaysia achieved in Belt and Road cooperation?
Bai Tian: Malaysia took the lead among Southeast Asian countries in supporting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Sino-Malaysian pragmatic cooperation has merged into the fast lane of development. In terms of policy coordination, the two countries have synergized development strategies through the signing of a series of cooperation documents including a Memorandum of Understanding for Cooperation in Transportation Infrastructure. In infrastructure connectivity, China has been Malaysia’s main cooperation partner in construction contracting for many years. The China-Malaysia Port Alliance is thriving. A series of transportation infrastructure projects such as the Southern Railway project are making steady progress. Work on the East Coast Railway Link (ECRL) is set to resume soon. In terms of trade flow, China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 10 consecutive years. Since the beginning of this year, bilateral trade has maintained growth momentum, and trade volume in the first two months reached US$16.4 billion, a year-on-year increase of 5.5 percent. In financial integration, Renminbi (RMB) clearing arrangements have been made with Chinese domestic banks operating branches in Malaysia. In terms of people-to-people exchange, the two countries have made rapid progress in two-way tourism and exchange of students. The Chinese Culture Center in Malaysia is going to open soon. I believe that all of these developments are strengthening exchange and understanding between the two peoples.
China Report ASEAN: Where do you think Sino-Malaysian relations will go in the future?
Bai Tian: Several places. First, we must consolidate high level political mutual trust. To us as neighbors, sincerity and friendship are most important. The two sides should continue to treat each other with respect and as equals, jointly safeguard the basis of mutual trust, properly address differences through friendly consultation and ensure the long-term, healthy and stable development of our bilateral relations.
Second, we should promote high-quality pragmatic cooperation. We welcome Malaysia to participate more deeply and profoundly in construction of the Belt and Road. Malaysia would like to make more progress in technology, digital economics and other realms while China has accumulated high-quality production capacity, abundant capital, advanced technology and rich experience, all of which can be useful for Malaysia. The two sides can expand cooperation in the development of industrial parks, high-value added manufacturing and other areas to introduce more technology and create more job opportunities for locals to ensure more tangible benefits are seized by the Malaysian people.
Third, we should forge closer people-to-people ties. I hope the two sides will strengthen cooperation not only in economics, trade and major projects, but also in cultural and people-to-people exchanges to enhance mutual understanding and amity between the two peoples. We will seize opportunities brought by the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations and the 2020 China-Malaysia Year of Culture and Tourism to promote greater people-to-people contact and cultivate more envoys of friendship among the people.
At the end of the day, I’m very confident about the future of Sino-Malaysian relations, and I’m sure that the two countries will become comprehensive strategic partners with a wider range and higher level of cooperation.