Despite project setbacks, Sino-Malaysian cooperation explores future growth

By Ge Hongliang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/22 19:13:42

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and projects for the construction of two gas pipelines were canceled for now, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told a press briefing on Tuesday at the end of his visit to China. Obviously, China-Malaysia cooperation is not limited to these infrastructure projects. The ECRL was regarded a flagship project of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) and China should rethink how to promote the BRI together with the countries along the route after the railway plan has been scrapped.

Mahathir attributed the cancelation of the Chinese-funded projects to Malaysia's debt burden. Although Malaysia has suffered an economic slowdown in recent years, will it easily be crushed by debt? Malaysia's total external debt was $215.5 billion in 2017. However, its foreign exchange reserves almost reached $110 billion, which shows that the country is capable of warding off risks. It is clear that there was more than debt burden behind canceling the rail link.

Mahathir also took aim at former prime minister Najib Razak. Mahathir vowed to undo Najib's mistakes, investigate into the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal and recover money that disappeared from the fund.

The Chinese-funded projects, including the ECRL, were the major projects signed by China and Malaysia during the Najib administration. The cancelation, therefore, to some extent is a result of political fight in Malaysia.

Mahathir may also want to recalibrate China-Malaysia relations by canceling the projects. He is a believer in national independence, advocating balanced diplomacy. Thus, he doesn't agree with Najib, who was considered too close to China. Mahathir thinks overreliance on China and getting in big power competition may drag down Malaysia's capability. Hence, debt burden has been projected as a reasonable ground for canceling the projects.

Many Western media outlets and observers speculated that the cancelation of the railway and gas pipeline projects would bog down China-Malaysia cooperation. However, it's not the case. The projects' scrapping does not mean that bilateral cooperation is facing severe challenges or has stagnated. China understands Malaysia's decision.

During Mahathir's five-day visit to China, the two countries agreed on promoting pragmatic cooperation. Mahathir also showed his positive attitude toward sustaining cooperation with China. He expressed his support for China's BRI many times.

A joint statement during Mahathir's visit says "standing at new historical junctures of their respective national development… both sides will adopt a strategic and long-term vision, enhance political mutual trust and practical cooperation on the basis of equality, mutual respect and mutual benefit and work for the sustained and steady development of their comprehensive strategic partnership."

According to the joint statement, China and Malaysia will actively discuss the formulation of the Five-year Program for Economic and Trade Cooperation for the period of 2018-2022. The two sides have encouraged collaboration and technology transfer in high value investment segments such as ICT, data analytics, design and development, internet of things, cloud computing and artificial intelligence. They also agreed to press ahead with cooperation in emerging areas like e-commerce, internet economy, science and technology as well as innovation.

In this context, projects including the ECRL are not everything in China-Malaysia bilateral cooperation. Both countries have the willingness to upgrade the bilateral relations on a new starting point.

China should rethink these projects, and summarize the problems faced during the process of Chinese companies' "going global" and the BRI's external investment. Only in this way can the BRI enjoy a bright future.

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

Posted in:

blog comments powered by Disqus