COMMENT | The return of Dr Mahathir Mohamad may be a rare window of opportunity in history for Asean, China and United States to find a new rule-based arrangement for the South China Sea, and to begin a new deal between Malaysia and China broadly and comprehensively.
The change of government is beneficial for our bilateral relationship. On the surface, it seems that Malaysia-China relations require adjustments as the new government under Mahathir seeks to renegotiate infrastructure deals deemed unfavourable to Malaysia.
Much as these adjustments seem difficult, the reset may be worthwhile for both sides as Malaysia moves away from the Najib Abdul Razak government’s transactional model of foreign policy-making to one that is built on the basis of Malaysia as a “middle power” with credibility internationally and with a strong claim of legitimacy domestically.
It is to China’s benefit to deal with a Malaysian government that is not perceived to be anyone’s client state. It is to the advantage of China that Malaysia has a strong voice in the Asean community and in the eyes of the world. With strong legitimacy and domestic credibility, the Pakatan Harapan government can formulate long-term foreign policies that enjoy longevity and widespread popular support.
The re-election of Mahathir and his pronouncement of having “no warships in South China Sea” - which I called The Mahathir Doctrine - not only gives voice anew to Asean on South China Sea but at the same time, also opens up opportunities for new forms of conciliatory collaborations between Asean and China with the longer-term aim to achieve rule-based diplomacy in the region.
Mahathir is not known to be pro-United States, but at the same time admittedly there is a distance between Malaysia and China. For the last few years, the South China Sea has become a major concern for the world, because, from the point of China, it was the then President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia that caused the reaction. But for a small country like Malaysia, whether it is a US or China problem, the South China Sea is our front game. We have to deal with the fallout if there is any untoward incident in the South China Sea.
Hence the Mahathir Doctrine is interesting because it is hard to find someone with his stature to say those things with a certain effect. Perhaps China and the world can seize this opportunity to rethink the South China Sea. We will have new opportunities to rethink Malaysia-China relations...