By Luo Yongkun
Forty-five years ago, Malaysia took the lead among ASEAN member states in establishing diplomatic ties with China, heralding a new chapter of China Malaysia friendship and China-ASEAN relations. Through joint efforts from both countries, bilateral exchanges have flourished ever since and have now been upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Cooperation has achieved fruitful results and continues to enjoy broad prospects for development.
Any discussion of China-Malaysia relations should start with historical relations between peoples. Among the most familiar historical links are Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Admiral Zheng He’s visits to Malacca. Malaysian citizens including government officials like current Prime Minister Mahathir admit that Zheng He brought to Malaysia peace and prosperity rather than invasion and conflict. For centuries, China has been known to the Malaysian people as a peace-loving country.
Based on a strong historical foundation, Malaysia has continued to regard China as a reliable partner. In recent decades, the two governments have been making great efforts to forge even friendlier bilateral relations. In July 1991, upon an invitation from the Malaysian Foreign Minister, China attended a dialogue meeting with ASEAN Foreign Ministers. This marked the first time China established formal diplomatic links with ASEAN since the Cold War came to an end, which is of great significance to East Asian integration.
Bilaterally speaking, China-Malaysia relations are driven by trade and economic links. Historically, Chinese and Malaysian business people have conducted frequent reciprocal visits. Since the establishment of formal diplomatic ties, the trade volume between China and Malaysia has increased steadily. In 1990, trade volume was US$1.2 billion. From 1990 to 2004, the figure multiplied 21 times. Today, China is by far and away the largest trading partner of Malaysia. Bilateral trade volume has reached more than US$100 billion. This makes Malaysia the fourth largest trading partner of China in Asia after Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, the two nations jointly pushed cooperation centered around connectivity, infrastructure and industrial parks such as East Coast Rail Links (ECRL) Railway Project in Southern Malay Peninsula, Forest City and Malacca Gateway.
In the 1990s, Malaysia began to become a popular country for everyday Chinese people in social and cultural fields. It was one of the top destinations in Southeast Asia for Chinese tourists. Many places of interest and local culinary delicacies attracted streams of Chinese visitors. In 2018, nearly 3 million Chinese people visited Malaysia, up 30 percent year-on-year. At the same time, many student exchange programs were launched. More and more Chinese students began to learn Malay, and more and more Malaysian students ventured to China for further study. Sino-Malaysian relations are far from limited to governmental ties but are driven by links between the peoples, which laid a solid foundation for bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership.
In the field of security, China and Malaysia have addressed differences through friendly consultation and negotiation. Since 1991, the two countries have worked very hard to enhance security cooperation. They signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation and other documents in this field, organized dialogues on defense and security issues, strengthened exchanges between defense agencies and launched joint military exercises in Malacca Strait and around the South China Sea. In recent decades, the two countries have succeeded in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.
A review of the China-Malaysia relationship over the past 45 years will show it to be quite singular.
For starters, the relations are based on consensus among top political leaders. Successive leaders of both countries continue to consider each other important partners. Since 1974, they have maintained close interaction and actively promoted bilateral cooperation in various fields. Mahathir refuted the “China Threat” theory during his first visit to Beijing since he returned to power. President Xi Jinping’s visit to Malaysia in 2013 upgraded bilateral ties to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Frequent visits between the top leaders of the two countries have enhanced mutual trust, improved confidence and pointed the right direction for bilateral ties, which has ensured bilateral relations remain stable, sustainable and fruitful.
Secondly, the relationship between China and Malaysia has already been mature. Take the economic cooperation for example. When Mahathir declared to suspend or cancel three big projects between the two countries last May, the international community was inclined to look negatively at Sino-Malaysian relations. But I am optimistic about our relations because the 45 years of friendship can persuade me to believe firmly that we never consider each other enemies. Undoubtedly, the suspension of the projects does challenge Sino Malaysian relations to some extent, but the two countries now look at their relations very rationally. Malaysian government still considers China an irreplaceable strategic and economic partner in its foreign relations. China, of course, views Malaysia as an important partner in Southeast Asia for regional peace, stability and prosperity. The consensus that we are close neighbors and enjoy friendship for years guarantees the two countries can stick to resolving disputes through dialogue and discussion.
Thirdly, China and Malaysia manage to concentrate on development. In the past 45 years, the two nations have always taken economic development as a top priority for bilateral ties. Economic cooperation is the driving force for bilateral ties and will definitely benefit the peoples of the two countries. Even when we face up with the sensitive issues, we are able to keep constant diplomatic dialogue to dilute the dispute in order to promote economic cooperation. Over the past decades, the two countries have worked together to find a way to expand our economic cooperation and sustain our comprehensive strategic partnership.
A Promising Future
Sino-Malaysian relations are particularly important in the sphere of China’s neighborhood relations. We have built strong friendship and enhanced mutual trust and understanding throughout the past 45 years. In the future, our relations will continue to boom. We need to focus on the following issues:
China and Malaysia should first focus on people-to-people exchange in the coming years. The Belt and Road Initiative emphasizes “Five Connectivity,” namely policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people bonds. Among these, people-to-people bonds are exceptionally important for China and Malaysia because people-to-people relations are the foundation for our comprehensive strategic partnership. It should also be noted that Chinese society and Malaysian society are quite different. We need to continuously enhance our mutual understanding at the grass roots level. For the Chinese, it is important to understand Malay culture and language, Islam and the Malayan way of life. At the same time, Chinese should also realize how diverse Malaysian society is—citizens include Malays, Malaysian Chinese, Malaysian Indians and many more. For Malaysians, it is necessary to understand the Chinese way of thinking and behaving, which is based on moderation and harmony. To promote relations, more and more work needs to be done in boosting educational exchange, tourism, youth exchange, interfaith dialogue and other sectors.
Secondly, the two nations need to enhance security ties. China and Malaysia now are enjoying solid political ties and people-to-people links. It is the foundation upon which we can enhance our security cooperation to further improve our relationship. In terms of security cooperation, China and Malaysia should first concentrate on maritime security. It is in the common interests of the two nations to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea. To this end, a bilateral strategic and security cooperation mechanism should be built. Through this mechanism, China and Malaysia can enhance regular dialogue on maritime security.
Thirdly, China and Malaysia should make good use of the ASEAN-Plus framework to strengthen bilateral ties and enhance China-ASEAN relations. China-ASEAN relations are now the most dynamic and fruitful among all partnerships that ASEAN has established with other countries. President Xi has promoted building a China-ASEAN community of shared future, while Prime Minister Mahathir has stressed Asian values and actively promoted East Asian integration. In the future, China and Malaysia should discuss how to improve policy coordination at the ASEAN level and enhance China-ASEAN connectivity to guard against rising protectionism and anti-globalization.