A reset in Malaysia-China relations

Opinion  |  Dennis Ignatius
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | Malaysians are rightly relishing the tremendous victory at last week’s polls. It was a dream come true. With hard work and good governance, we can all look forward to a better, brighter future.

The sudden change in government averted disaster to the nation on many fronts. Few realise, for example, how close we came to jeopardising our independence and sovereignty as a result of Najib Razak’s reckless and imprudent China policy. His greed was not just his own undoing; it could have been the nation’s undoing as well.

Four things would have happened had Najib continued in power:

1. Mega projects that prioritised China’s interests above our own would have accelerated. We would have ended up with infrastructure projects that were neither viable nor necessary, projects that advanced China’s ambitious regional agenda more than our own national goals.

2. Mega projects would have taken corruption to mega levels. As Professor KS Jomo (now a member of Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s team of advisers] warned, the East Coast Rail Line (ECRL), for one, is another 1MDB in the making.

The rapid planned expansion of port construction, too, made no sense other than being avenues to enrich corrupt politicians and their cronies. Dirty money flowing from these projects would have also subverted our political system yet further, fatally undermining our democracy.

3. Malaysia would have quickly become so indebted to China that our independence and territorial integrity would have been seriously compromised. We might even have had to cede ports and land to China on long-term leases as Sri Lanka did. China’s influence in our national affairs would have also grown exponentially.

4. Racial tensions within Malaysia would have risen to dangerous levels. Najib never bothered to rationalise his radical realignment with China to his own base, particularly at a time when he was also stoking fears that Chinese Malaysians posed an existential threat to the Malays.

As a consequence, several Malay groups, already given to bigotry, were becoming increasingly hostile towards Malaysians of Chinese origin.

Reset button

One of Mahathir’s key foreign policy challenges is now to engineer a reset in our relations with China, to forge a new relationship based on shared interests, mutual benefit and respect for independence and sovereignty. The days of “unequal treaties,” as Mahathir himself described them in one of his post-election press conferences, are over.

All mega projects will now be carefully scrutinised. Projects that are viable, affordable and beneficial will more than likely be allowed to proceed. Others like the ECRL might be scrapped entirely (if possible).

Much, of course, will depend on the terms of the contracts themselves (which are currently shrouded in secrecy) and how much money has already changed hands. Some contracts might be too costly to cancel; the best that can be hoped for is renegotiated terms. Hopefully, China will be gracious enough to renegotiate or even agree to cancel some of the more objectionable projects.

Private investment-driven projects like Forest City, the object of much of Mahathir’s wrath, might prove more challenging. Forest City is already a reality and can’t be undone. It might be possible, however, to slow down the pace of expansion and ‘Malaysianise’ it to prevent it from becoming a China (PRC) enclave.

The granting of permanent residence to foreign nationals under the Malaysia My Second Home programme will also need to be reviewed. The programme was intended for foreign nationals to make Malaysia their retirement destination, not for whole families to reside here permanently and carry on business simply because they have purchased property in Malaysia.

On the other hand, there are some reports that PRC citizens in Malaysia are alarmed by recent events and worried about their safety. There is absolutely no reason for them to be concerned. If there is one consistent message from the new government, it is that the rule of law will be scrupulously observed and the rights of all will be protected. Malaysia has always been a safe, open and friendly place and will continue to be so.

Not anti-China but pro-Malaysia

There should be no doubt that the whole brouhaha about China projects is not an expression of anti-China sentiment. China is, arguably, our most important trading partner and a critical source of much needed foreign investment. No Malaysian government will want to needlessly antagonise such an important economic partner and neighbour.

Besides, Malaysians generally hold China in high regard and are impressed by China’s amazing rise to greatness. President Xi Jinping’s Road and Belt Initiative has much to offer Malaysia as well. Good relations with China will, therefore, always remain a national priority.

The crux of the problem was that China appeared to be working with a corrupt and unpopular regime and exploiting internal weaknesses to secure projects that were good for China but bad for Malaysia. This, coupled with China’s growing footprint in Malaysia and its aggressive moves in the South China Sea gave rise to concerns that our independence and territorial integrity were being slowly compromised. 

Whatever it is, Mahathir is just the man for the task. As I have long argued, Mahathir has, in fact, done more to promote good and equitable relations with China than any other prime minister. His 1985 visit to China set the stage for the rapid growth of bilateral ties, something which even Beijing recognised until political expediency obliged it to downplay Mahathir’s contributions.

Ever the nationalist, he was always careful to ensure that policies and projects with China, as well as with other countries, always prioritised Malaysia’s interest above all else. This was one of Najib’s major failures in dealing with China.

Mahathir’s decision to rope in both Jomo and billionaire Robert Kuok also says a lot about his pragmatic approach to the issue. Like Mahathir, Jomo has long been critical of many of the China-related projects. His involvement will now reassure Malaysians that all these projects will be carefully scrutinised with Malaysia’s best interest in mind.

Kuok, on the other hand, with his vast business expertise, influence and network of close friendships in Beijing, will be an excellent interlocutor between both governments. He will also prove invaluable in working out an acceptable compromise on project-related issues while helping to put the relationship back on track.

The people of Malaysia have passed judgement on the long years of Najib’s misrule. A new era has begun. Hopefully, China will now work with our new government to build a stronger, better relationship based on shared interest and mutual benefit.

DENNIS IGNATIUS is a former ambassador. He blogs here.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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