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There was certainly no shortage of superlatives to describe Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s first official visit to China. Anwar himself said, “The hospitality received and focus given were great and extraordinary.” 

In the grand scheme of things, however, Anwar’s visit was just one more chapter, albeit an important one, in Malaysia’s long and evolving quest to find the right balance between economic imperatives and security concerns with its most important neighbour. 

Stripped of all the hype, the picture that emerged from the visit was that of a prime minister trying to put the bilateral relationship on a more even keel after the disastrous and fawning years of the Najib administration when Malaysia looked to China as “big brother” (to quote former foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein). 

With the 1MDB crisis closing in on him, then prime minister Najib Tun Razak quickly embraced China politically and economically and even alluded to some sort of new agreement under which China would protect and defend Malaysia’s sovereignty. Massive if dubious and lopsided infrastructure projects paid for with loans from China followed. With the connivance of the authorities in Beijing, billions were siphoned off to help cover 1MDB losses while giving Beijing an unprecedented foothold in Malaysia.

On a visit to China in 2016, Najib received an exuberant welcome and was treated to a rare private dinner with President Xi who described China-Malaysia relations as “being as close as lips are to teeth”, a quintessentially Chinese expression reserved for the select few.

The sudden change of government in Malaysia following the 2018 elections, however, changed all that. Relations cooled; some of the projects – which former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad likened to the “unequal treaties” imposed upon China in the 19th century – were cancelled or scaled down. 

Mahathir’s concern that Malaysia could end up dangerously indebted to China was not without foundation. Mahathir’s also made no secret of his unhappiness that too many PRC nationals were moving to Malaysia and that many of the infrastructure projects were exploitative in nature.

It was undoubtedly a black eye for Beijing and a huge setback for its regional ambitions. The Covid pandemic did the rest; relations suffered.

Viewed from this perspective, Anwar’s visit was a fence-mending one, intended to re-establish rapport with the Chinese leadership and rebuild the once close relationship. To that end, he went out of his way to extol Xi, calling him a visionary and a statesman who “not only changed the course of China but also given a ray of hope to the world.” 

But Anwar also made clear his government intended to prioritise its own national interest and that no country should try to impose its views on Malaysia. 

This was evident in the discussions on regional security issues, for example. 

Worried about the resurgent American military presence in East Asia, Beijing, in not so many words, called for a partnership of Asian civilizations to preserve peace, stability and development under the “anchor” of Chinese leadership. 

Anwar, however, took a more nuanced position. He reassured Beijing that far from seeing  China as a threat, Malaysia considers China a close friend and highly valued economic partner. Nevertheless, as a trading nation, he reiterated that Malaysia would pursue good relations with all countries including the US. 

Indeed, his pointed remarks (at Tsinghua University) that Malaysia will not allow any big power to dictate to it and that Malaysia alone will decide what is best for the country appeared to be aimed as much at Washington as Beijing.

Another area where Anwar held his ground, albeit in non-confrontational manner, was on the sensitive issue of China’s maritime claims. Using its dubious and internationally discredited nine-dash line, China has laid claim to almost the entire South China Sea and all the islands, reefs and shoals therein. In pursuit of its territorial ambitions, China has persistently and unapologetically intruded into Malaysian waters and airspace and has been harassing exploration efforts by Petronas.

Anwar insisted that exploration efforts will continue though he held out the possibility of negotiations to resolve differences.  What such negotiations would involve is uncertain, given immutable positions on both sides. Even finding agreement on a code of conduct has been elusive despite more than 20 years of talks between ASEAN and China.

For the foreseeable future, China’s maritime claims will remain a thorn  in the bilateral relationship, a constant reminder that while China has much to offer, it also poses a serious threat to Malaysia’s territorial integrity. For that reason too, Malaysia will remain quietly supportive of the US presence in the region. 

Staying focused on developing better trade and economic relations with China while depending on the US to keep China in check makes good strategic sense for a small heavily-trade dependent country like Malaysia.

For Anwar, the focal point of his visit was harnessing the power of the Chinese economy and technology to spur economic development at home – a key domestic priority. “As we talk of uncertainties in relation among nations, geopolitical conflicts and economic rivalry, let us not forget the ordinary citizen with the burden of having to put food on the table and the tangible and pressing uncertainties faced”, he reminded his hosts at the Boao Forum. 

He went on to use his many meetings with Chinese leaders and businessmen to plead for greater Chinese investments, a reinvigoration of China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and greater cooperation in emerging sectors such as the digital economy, electric cars and renewable energy. 

Interestingly, he did not shy away from making clear that Malaysia would not accept the kind of dubious, lopsided projects that was the hallmark of the Najib era. His statement that “ethics, sincerity and integrity in dealings with partners in bilateral and multilateral situations should be paramount,” said it all. 

In any case, with a debt level approaching RM1.5 trillion, Malaysia can no longer afford all those big and expensive BRI infrastructure projects funded by massive borrowing from China. In this sense, Anwar’s call for a ”reinvigoration” of BRI must be seen as a plea to shift the BRI framework  from loans to direct investments.

Anwar no doubt came away very pleased that RM170 billion worth of MOUs – described as “the highest investment commitment from China to Malaysia” – were signed during the visit. Though details were sparse and MOUs are far from firm commitments, it was seen as a coup for Anwar and played well politically in Malaysia. 

Anwar’s efforts at restoring closer relations with Beijing and his unceasing praise of the Chinese leadership was no doubt well received. Anxious to put the past behind and strengthen relations against the backdrop of its intensifying rivalry with the US, China can be expected to now step up its courtship of Malaysia with all sorts of new deals and offers of cooperation. 

As both President Xi and Prime Minister Li described it, the bilateral relationship now stands at a “new historical starting point.”

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 07 April 2023]