Belt and Road initiative in Malaysia has exemplary effect

By Xue Li Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/16 20:13:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's visit to China from August 17 to 21 will have influence on at least three frontiers - strategic competition between China and the US in Southeast Asia, stable development of Sino-Malaysian ties and the overall sustainability of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). For China, Mahathir's tour is important as there is a possibility of a new consensus over further joint promotion of the BRI with the Malaysian government after talks.

Conflicts in history between a rising power and a hegemonic power have been normal. Outbreak of an armed conflict between Beijing and Washington is unlikely, but peaceful competition between the two is inevitable and Southeast Asia is a vital area for such competition.

Southeast Asian countries rely on China for economic growth but depend on the US for matters of security while safeguarding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)'s centrality in regional affairs.

Although US President Donald Trump is advocating "America First," Washington is reluctant to see its strategic competitor, China, leading the way in Southeast Asia. So he is asking his allies and partners to take greater responsibility for security while offering symbolic economic support.

For instance, Washington initiated the Indo-Pacific strategy at the end of 2017 and revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a four-way security mechanism between itself, Japan, India and Australia.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged to provide about $300 million in new security funding for the Indo-Pacific region. In July, he announced $113 million US investment to promote Indo-Pacific's new technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives.

Meanwhile, China is seeking mutually beneficial economic cooperation with ASEAN nations, taking under control divergences with claimants in the South China Sea over security issues and developing collaboration with ASEAN in non-traditional security affairs.

So far, when it comes to cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, China is having an upper hand economically and the US is prevailing on security issues.

Neighborhood diplomacy is the priority of China's foreign policy and Southeast Asia is a crucial area in China's neighborhood diplomacy. It is also a hub on the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.

Among the 10 ASEAN members, Malaysia is one of the main partners of the BRI. Over the past few years, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur have inked a large number of cooperation contracts and agreements. But Mahathir, who assumed office not long ago, believes his predecessor Najib Razak signed too many contracts for major infrastructure projects which need too much money. There is also a suspicion of corruption. Therefore, he wanted to re-examine all major international projects, of which most are China-linked.

The prior option for China is to coordinate with Malaysia in re-examining the agreements so as to come to a new consensus with Kuala Lumpur. If the two sides fail to agree in the end, Beijing could consider terminating the projects and ask for compensation from Malaysia. If Chinese companies are found involved in corrupt practices, they should be punished by the Chinese government. It can also be seen as an opportunity to promote China's anti-corruption laws to regulate Chinese enterprises overseas.

When young, Mahathir was a radical Malay nationalist. But he became a practical and mature politician after assuming power. He is well aware of the value of cooperating with China. During his tenure as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir visited China seven times giving a boost to Sino-Malaysian ties.

The BRI is about five years old. It is time to make a general reflection and evaluation. The BRI has seen several milestones in the past five years but there have also been problems. While promoting the initiative, China should also pay more attention to its quality.

Malaysia's case shows how changes in BRI participants' political landscape can influence projects. Experience in resolving the case will have implications for China's cooperation with Malaysia in post-Mahathir era as well as other main partners along the BRI route.

In the meantime, Washington has little experience of promoting economic development in other countries. As long as China can steadily promote the BRI, there is no need to worry about economic competition with the US in the region.

The author is director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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