Sino-Malaysian relations look to a fresh start

By Ge Hongliang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/5 20:38:39

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Malaysia and attended the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Singapore last week. His trip to Malaysia, the first by a top Chinese leader after the new Malaysian government was formed, has caught wide attention. As Wang said, "China-Malaysia relations are standing at a new historical starting point." At this point, the two countries attach high importance to each other and are willing to push forward cooperation. They are able to overcome challenges and jointly start a new chapter in bilateral relations.

In the 14th Malaysian general election in May, the opposition Pakatan Harapan defeated the Barisan Nasional coalition to become the ruling party, making the first change in the Malaysian politics since the country's independence in 1957.

Mahathir Mohamad, 93, became the new prime minister and formed a majority government along with the Sabah Heritage Party. As Mahathir and his new government are keen to develop relations with China, the political shift in Malaysia indeed means a new starting point other than challenges for Sino-Malaysian relations. The starting point can be interpreted in the following ways.

First, while maintaining cooperation, China and Malaysia will renegotiate problems in bilateral projects that cropped up during the course of their progress. Mahathir said before winning the election that he would review Chinese investment projects once elected prime minister.

He has kept the promise, reiterating that his government was entitled to study the unfair terms in the contracts and renegotiate some, if necessary. So far, Chinese-backed projects such as the East Coast Railway Link have been suspended as the new Malaysian government implements its election promise.

Mahathir does not want cooperation contracts with other countries to contain unfair terms for Malaysia. He is eager to do something tangible for Malaysia's development and socioeconomic progress. By reviewing China-related projects and contracts, he intends to rectify the problems and get rid of the "unfair" parts. This may also be a chance for China and Malaysia to address differences.

Second, the new starting point means Sino-Malaysian ties will keep moving forward with adjustments. Being a firm nationalist, Mahathir has been attaching great importance to Malaysia's national interests in cooperating with other countries. He hates other countries interfering in Malaysia's domestic affairs. The new Malaysian government is bound to pursue a strategic and independent foreign policy, expanding the country's influence both in the region and across the globe through balanced diplomacy and not taking sides.

As for Sino-Malaysian relations, Mahathir once criticized his predecessor Najib Razak for being too close to China. That means the new government may strive to balance ties with Beijing.

The new starting point also refers to fresh goals in Sino-Malaysian regional and international collaboration. Apart from emphasizing pragmatism, Mahathir is also passionate about advocating "Asian values." The two countries have enough reasons to come together for the Belt and Road initiative.

Being located at the intersection of land and sea, Malaysia can play a crucial role in the initiative. Mahathir has himself said that he "supports" the initiative and wanted to "make best use" of it. In Mahathir's eyes, the Belt and Road is an opportunity to achieve prosperity in Asia.

Mahathir is for balance in cooperation with other nations. Sino-Malaysian consensus in regional cooperation outweighs divergences. During Wang's visit, the two sides articulated their clear stance in support of multilateralism amid the emergence of forces of anti- globalization and protectionism. The two countries believe that they should jointly promote the formation of the East Asia Economic Community, and safeguard the unity and legitimate development rights of emerging economies.

There may be quite a few challenges ahead, but China and Malaysia are now standing on a new starting point for continuing their friendly and cooperative journey. For both nations, it is an opportunity to take their relationship to a new level. Mahathir's China visit is approaching. This is likely to become a preface to the new bilateral ties.

The author is a research fellow with The Charhar Institute and director of the College of ASEAN Studies at Guangxi University for Nationalities.


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