Tun Mahathir’s Three Messages to China

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Picture Credit: Video grab of Mahathir with Chinese investment firm backdrop
 

Being the first high-profile visit to China after the installation of the Pakatan Harapan (PH)  government, Tun Daim Zainuddin’s recent trip to Beijing is certainly the start of serious engagements between Putrajaya and Beijing and is an indication of what to expect in the following months and years.

As Foreign Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah revealed, the Chairperson of the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) is sent as a special envoy to China with specific reasons and it is a deliberate move ahead of the Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s state visit next in August.

The reasons, of course, are predictable considering the recent suspension of several mega-projects involving the Chinese corporate giants, namely, East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and the two gas pipeline projects — Multi-Product Pipeline (MPP) in Malacca and Trans-Sabah
Gas Pipeline (TSGP) in Sabah.

As disclosed by the Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir himself, Tun Daim’s primary mission is to renegotiate what the PH government deemed as loop-sided loans and contracts signed during the previous administration under ex-PM Najib Razak.

This, in turn, is the first admission by the PH’s government of the need to ‘re-start’ Malaysia’s relations with China after various speculations following its historic electoral victory in May.

Ahead of Tun Mahathir’s impending visit to China in mid-August, the prime minister has consistently sent three messages to the Chinese counterpart (and the wider world) on Putrajaya’s stance regarding the issues surrounding the bilateral relations.

First and foremost, the flow of Chinese investment in Malaysia. Like any foreign investments, Chinese investors are invited to come to Malaysia on conditions that such investments should be made through the utilisation of local resources and labour.

Adding to such condition is another criterium of how these investments contribute towards the upgrading of Malaysian businesses and industries, especially on how it will impact the country’s position in the global or regional supply-chain.

In other words, the PH administration is looking for measurable and high-end investments like the Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ) initiative — slated to position Malaysia as the e-commerce hub of the Asean region which is actively pushed by Alibaba. This is more important to the PH than the loan-leaning development projects which Dr Mahathir repeatedly opposed.

As in any other country, such investment criteria are erected with the eventual goal of moving the country towards Industrial Revolution 4.0 and steering it to become a developed nation by 2025.

Second, it is expected that Malaysia will promote the trans-national effort to de-militarise the South China Sea (SCS) in the following years.

While efforts to demilitarise SCS is not new to the Asean region, it is definitely a new initiative from the Malaysian which is eager to observe long-lasting peace in the disputed seas.

First of all, we must admit that Dr Mahathir was quick to come up with the proactive proposal let Asean countries take charge of sea-patrols while at the same time, he remained open to such cooperation with stakeholders such as China and even the US.

Dr Mahathir suggested that such cooperation should involve joint patrols by small-boats against the threats by pirates and certain terror groups in the contentious sea, instead of the warships that are touring the region.

By this, he meant that it will be the maritime enforcement agencies such as the marine police force from the involving countries, that should take full charge of these patrol missions.

With Indonesia, — a long-time proponent for the ‘de-securitisation’ of the SCS initiative — and having a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, both Putrajaya and Jakarta can now opt to cooperate on such issues.

The proposals by Dr Mahathir is an ambitious one, and Malaysia will need to persuade other claimant-states including China, to join such efforts. With Jakarta on his side, Dr M will have a stronger say in this aspect of the security situation in the SCS.

By all means, deliberating this proposal is the means to shed the long-standing source of tensions — the sovereignty issue regarding territorial integrity of the claimant-states – among the Asean.

What it can contribute is the fostering of common responsibilities among the stakeholders in safeguarding peace and development in the contentious sea.

Of course, it remains to be seen if such ambitious proposals can gain traction among other Asean neighbours as well as support from Beijing, before it can truly become the game-changer in the flashpoint area.

Without doubt, Dr Mahathir’s long-standing leadership stature in the Asean region will be the pull factor in realising such a feat.

It is expected that the new PH administration will be pursuing another round of comprehensive cooperation with Japan on top of its deep economic ties with China.

Dr Mahathir’s second Japan visit will take place before his Beijing trip and this second trip to Tokyo in less than 2 months are solid indicators of the need for Malaysia to safeguard its neutrality principle in its foreign policy pursuits.

The staging of the Japan and China visits demonstrates that while affirming China as an important economic partner, Putrajaya is also seeking wide-ranging cooperation with other major powers as a sovereign nation of its own.

With Sino-Japanese ties back to normalcy and even further deepened, Malaysia’s close relationships with both Asian powers are bound to create opportunities for trilateral cooperation in many areas that are virtually non-existent at the moment.

As a proposer of the world’s common market concept, Anbound Malaysia is of the view that state actors should speak the ‘common language’ as understood by all regardless of political systems, cultural differences and national interests.

The three messages as mentioned above, should be the indicators for policy-makers in Beijing to understand what the new Malaysian government is seeking to obtain and preserve within the overall context of bilateral relations.

Whether in terms of economic cooperation, joint policing in the South China Sea or the potential Malaysia-China-Japan trilateral cooperation, any reciprocal action from the Chinese counterpart will facilitate the construction of the ‘common language’ between Malaysia and China.
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Anbound Malaysia is a subsidiary of Anbound China which is a leading independent think tank headquartered in Beijing. The think tank is also a consultancy firm specializing in China-ASEAN cooperation. For any feedback, please contact: malaysia@anbound.com