As Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is set to embark on an official visit to China on Monday, one cannot help but wonder whether he is taking advantage of the United States and China’s jostle for power in the region, to deal with troubles in his own backyard.
Najib had previously fostered good relations with the US, seen through the various bilateral meetings, and his and US president Barack Obama's status as ‘golfing buddies’.
However, Najib is currently seen to be pivoting to China, more so after the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) lawsuit – which seeks to recover more than US$1 billion worth of assets linked to his brainchild 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) – was filed in July.
Notable projects such as the East Coast Rail Line (ECRL) with its main project contractor being China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) as well as the involvement of Chinese firms in deals with 1MDB are apparent examples, to name a few.
And just last week, Parliament had passed the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) Bill – seen by many as China’s brainchild in countering the US’ Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
So is Najib’s working trip to China a balancing act between Malaysia’s ties with both the US and China? Or is he completely changing directions by appealing to China solely?
Defence analyst Lam Choong Wah does not think Malaysia will depend on China a hundred percent due to the certain degree of distrust between the two on several issues, with the disputed Spratly Islands being one of them.
And Malaysia and China are simply vastly different when it comes to ideologies and politics, he pointed out.
However, Lam, who is senior fellow at Research for Social Advancement (Refsa), pointed to Malaysia’s current predicament – that it is running out of money.
“So he (Najib) needs big projects. These kind of projects cannot be provided by the US and can only be provided by China.
“That’s why he goes to China to lobby for more investment for Malaysia,” Lam told Malaysiakini.
Despite this, Lam does not see this as a sign of Malaysia abandoning its traditional western allies.
Describing the procurement of projects as an ‘ad hoc situation’, Lam again cited the major differences between the two countries.
He, however, admitted that Najib may be taking advantage of the power struggle between the US and China.
“I do agree to a certain extent that he is taking advantage of international political struggles - the great game between China and the US, but I don’t agree that Malaysia will abandon its western allies,” he said.
Commenting on Najib’s visit to China, Director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania James Chin said this shows how China is the only superpower willing to host Najib despite the 1MDB crisis.
“He needs to show Malaysians that world leaders will still meet him despite the 1MDB scandal.
“China knows this and will use this opportunity to bring Malaysia closer to Beijing,” said Chin.
Najib, he added, was also signalling that China will now be as important as the US and the west.
Senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore Oh Ei Sun, on the other hand, provided a different view on the matter.
Issues related to 1MDB, he said, are over in Malaysia, due to the government's solid command of power, as well as political fatigue because of futility in effecting change.
“(There is) no big domestic political trouble for Najib as Umno seems to be solidly behind him and the opposition is splintered at least four or five ways,” he said.
Commenting on the lawsuit by the DOJ, Oh believes that the Malaysian government understood the great degree of freedom in which the department operates, citing how it had even investigated a sitting president – Bill Clinton.
“Therefore, the DOJ investigation of 1MDB is very unlikely to be a specific Obama administration foreign policy act,” he said.
Despite this, Oh, a one-time political secretary to Najib, admitted that regional countries including Malaysia have to play a balancing act among the vying superpowers to achieve maximum interests.
“Traditionally we have some of the best ties, economically especially, with China. But other regional countries, including previously antagonistic Philippines are catching up in attracting China investments, so we have to try hard and fast to further upgrade and deepen the existing close ties,” said Oh.
Just last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had declared a “separation” with the US and announced Philippines’ realignment with China.
Najib’s one-week visit to China – on the invitation of China’s Premier of the State Council Li Keqiang – will see him travelling with dozens of cabinet ministers and senior government officials.
Issues expected to be discussed in the meeting between Najib and Chinese leaders include bilateral cooperation in the field of education, defence, agriculture, trade and investment and tourism and culture, among others.
This would be Najib’s third official visit to China since 2009.
The DOJ in its civil suits had described Malaysian Official 1 (MO1) as a senior government official who was previously investigated by Malaysian authorities for receiving US$681 million in his personal bank account.
The government, however, never confirmed that MO1 was Najib himself. But Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Abdul Rahman Dahlan admitted that it was obvious how MO1 was indeed the prime minister.
Attorney-general Mohamed Apandi Ali, earlier this year, had cleared Najib of having received US$681 million and said that it was a “donation” from the Arab royal family.
Najib himself has consistently denied any wrongdoing in the matter.