High-level visits expected to advance China-Malaysia ties

By Su Tan Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/31 21:33:40

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is visiting Malaysia Tuesday and Wednesday and set to meet Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the first by a top Chinese leader since the 93-year-old resumed the premiership in May.

Mahathir will reportedly visit China in August. After his unexpected victory in the May 9 general election, his harsh criticism of Chinese loans and a slew of seemingly hardball moves against China-Malaysia cooperation projects agreed during the rule of his predecessor Najib Razak have given the impression of Mahathir as an anti-China figure to many observers, and cast doubt on the prospects of bilateral relations.

As a strident critic of Najib, Mahathir is likely to walk away from the previous administration's approach. But the high interdependence between China and Malaysia makes it an unaffordable loss for the Southeast Asian country to lose its biggest trading partner. China is Malaysia's second-largest export destination, following Singapore, and its No. 1 import source. Two-way trade volume reached about $74 billion last year. The two complementary economies have huge potential for cooperation. Mahathir, who served as Malaysian prime minister between 1981 and 2003, prioritizes national economic development among all tasks and is clearly aware of the importance of maintaining economic ties with China.

In a June interview with the South China Morning Post, Mahathir denied he was anti-China. The political strongman said he always regarded China as "a good neighbor and also as a very big market." He made it clear that what he wants is foreign investment that can boost the local economy and employment of Malaysian workers, be it from China or other countries. He also admitted that he was not against the Belt and Road initiative and would try to enhance relations with China. These words outline his attitude toward China.

That doesn't necessarily foretell a smooth relationship between China and Malaysia. While Mahathir well understands that his country needs the sizable market created by the Belt and Road initiative and cooperation with China, he will probably adjust the cooperation model forged during the previous administration, as already shown by his order to suspend the $20 billion East Coast Rail Link and two gas pipeline projects. There may be major adjustments to the way that Chinese enterprises operate in Malaysia and thereby challenges for these companies.

Five years on, the Belt and Road initiative is still at a preliminary stage. Its advance in Southeast Asian countries needs their understanding and collaboration, and in particular, a welcoming regional environment. China-Malaysia cooperation in this respect is crucial.

People sometimes have to agree to disagree. We should still be confident that the two countries are able to properly manage differences and advance ties. It is hoped that the recent high-level visits between the two countries will facilitate this process.

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