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Dr Mahathir has just returned from a five-day official visit to China, his first since assuming the reigns of power in Putrajaya for the second time. Before his plane could even touch down in Malaysia, reports that the visit was a “diplomatic disaster” began circulating and have since gone viral.

The report, written by an anonymous writer using the pseudonym  “concerned Malaysia-China observer,” and carried by Malaysiakini, implied that the lack of major bilateral agreements signed during the visit and the failure to hold a joint press conference with President Xi Jinping were indications that the visit didn’t go well. And it warned of serious economic and political consequences.

Why a  letter from someone who does not even have the courage to use his own name should be given so much credence is baffling.

Similarly, MCA Deputy President Wee Ka Siong insisted that the cancellation of projects “would not augur well for Malaysia’s relationship with Beijing.”

A difficult visit

Mahathir went to China with one principal goal – to seek China’s understanding to cancel the ECRL and other projects that the new Pakatan Harapan government concluded made absolutely no economic sense. It was never going to be an easy sell, particularly as it came to be viewed as one of the centerpieces of bilateral cooperation under the previous government.

Mahathir did the right thing by travelling to Beijing for face to face discussions with the Chinese leadership. It was also an opportunity to reassure them that despite the unfortunate cancellation of projects, Malaysia remained deeply committed to developing close and mutually beneficial relations with China.

Following bilateral discussions, President Xi appears to have accepted Putrajaya’s decision to cancel the projects because of Malaysia’s current fiscal position. A Chinese foreign ministry statement subsequently noted that “however the situation may evolve, the two countries will always hold friendly policies towards each other.”  It also added that the cancellation of projects “will not hinder future bilateral trade and economic relations.”

It is the clearest indication yet that China has agreed to put this unfortunate episode behind us and move on. As the South China Morning Post concluded, “The fallout from Malaysia’s cancellation [of projects] appears to have been contained….”

Far from being a “diplomatic disaster,” the visit, in fact, achieved its objective – the projects have been cancelled with Beijing’s understanding and the groundwork has been laid to move forward again. It is a huge diplomatic breakthrough.

Of course, negotiations will now continue on the question of compensation and other outstanding issues. It won’t be easy or cheap. The country will invariably lose billions; that is the price we all must pay for UMNO-BN’s recklessness, dishonesty and stupidity. And no amount of mindless posturing by the MCA is going to alter that fact.

Big deal

The absence of any major agreements or contracts signed during Mahathir’s visit is not surprising given that Mahathir has been in office for a little more than a hundred days. As he himself has repeatedly emphasized,  his main priority is setting things right after years of kleptocracy and misgovernance.

Besides, it’s easy to announce the kind of glitzy deals that Najib was fond of doing on his overseas trips that involved buying things we didn’t need or signing contracts for projects we couldn’t afford. He was good at making other countries great again at the expense of his own.

Mahathir, on the other hand, is not so desperate to play to the gallery or polish his own ego with dubious deals.

Joint press conference

Much is also being made of the fact that Mahathir and President Xi did not hold a joint press conference. What is not mentioned is that it is, in fact, not the norm. Joint press conferences are usually held between counterparts. In Mahathir’s case, his counterpart is Prime Minister Li Keqiang not President Xi. Both prime ministers did indeed hold an amicable joint press conference.

In any case, I don’t recall Najib ever holding a joint press conference with President Xi during his many visits to China in spite of all his bragging about how close he was to the leadership in Beijing.

More significantly, President Xi himself very graciously hosted a banquet for Mahathir, something that is usually handled by the Chinese premier for visiting prime ministers. As well, Mahathir was personally received at the airport in Beijing by State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, an honour that is rarely accorded visiting prime ministers (who are usually received by a vice-minister as per the usual Chinese protocol).

All this suggests that despite the difficulties, China is determined not to allow anything to derail what has otherwise been an outstanding relationship.  And that augurs well for the future of our relations despite the MCA’s alarmist rhetoric.

Good relations but not at any price

MCA leaders like Wee talk about the good relations that Malaysia enjoyed with China during Najib’s term of office and grumble about how it is now being jeopardized. There is no doubt that good relations with China are critical for our prosperity and security, but if good relations are based on agreements that sell us short, of what value is it?

Mahathir believes, as most sane Malaysians do, that good relations must be premised on shared interests and mutual benefit and has now taken an important step in putting our relations with our most important neighbour and economic partner back on a firm footing.

In diplomacy, that is always considered a success no matter what those with vested interests or hidden agendas might say.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 23rd August 2018]

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