Malaysia has strong relations with China, not ‘pawn’ in big powers rivalry: ambassador

By Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi Source: Global Times Published: 2020/10/12 18:46:11

Malaysia Malaysian Ambassador to China Raja Nushirwan Zainal Abidin Photo: Li Hao/GT

Editor's Note:

China's State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid an official visit to Malaysia on Monday. Discussion of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by China was reported to be on the agenda. While the two countries have some differences over the South China Sea, cooperation is still the mainstream in a range of fields. Before Wang's visit, Global Times reporters Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi (GT) interviewed Malaysia Malaysian Ambassador to China Raja Nushirwan Zainal Abidin (Abidin) on bilateral relations, the South China Sea dispute, vaccines and other issues.

GT: Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on August 5 that Malaysia must ensure it will not be dragged and trapped into a geopolitical tussle between superpowers in its efforts to resolve South China Sea disputes. Could you elaborate further on the implications of that statement? Does it mean Malaysia will not take sides between China and the US?

Abidin: We will not take sides. So that's the point that I first want to make. The second issue is throughout our history, since independence, our foreign policy is to have good relations with all countries of the world. And this has continued up to today. 

The other point which I would like to emphasize as well is that our absolute belief in international law as well as norms of behavior among states. So all of these factors will dictate our responses in our posture in the South China Sea. 

There are ongoing tensions between China and the US. For countries like Malaysia, it's commonly said that to choose is to lose. And generally, especially on the part of China, I do not get a sense that the Chinese leadership wants countries like Malaysia to take sides. I don't think China wants any country like Malaysia, or Southeast Asia generally, to be dependent on China. They appreciate the independent foreign policy that countries like Malaysia have. 

In the case of the South China sea, this is the way that Malaysia is handling it with China, which is on the basis of mutual respect and mutual awareness that our interests are fundamentally the same. And these issues should be resolved through diplomatic channels. 

GT: If the tensions between China and the US become further strained, will it be difficult for Malaysia not to take sides?

Abidin: I want to mention this point a lot. I do not agree with this point of view that countries need to take sides. Because fundamentally it is based on the assumption that we are pawns in bigger powers' rivalry. I can certainly confirm that we do not see ourselves as pawns. Certainly we have the power to decide on our own. And this is what we have done. 

We will decide on a course of action, which is in our interests, taking into account the views of our many partners. I do not get a sense that if we were to engage in, if we were to decide on a certain course of action, that another country will necessarily tell us that we should not be doing it. Because we don't get a sense that this has happened before. I understood that Malaysia agreed with other countries, including China, and that it will resolve the South China Sea disputes through diplomatic channels. 

As far as we're concerned, there is no answer or avenue to resolve this other than through diplomatic channels. When I discuss this with my friends in China, we comment we commonly agree to use a certain phrase that the South China Sea is not a problem, and it is a common challenge which we need to address. 

Besides, our relationship is so deep and so wide that the South China Sea is only a very small component in that broader relationship. So we have always taken a broader view in a wider perspective on this issue, including the broader historical perspective of the relations between our two countries, which go back thousands of years. 

GT: Will your country close the door to the 24 Chinese companies that the US imposed sanctions on for allegedly advancing "militarization" in the South China Sea?

Abidin: We do not recognize the unilateral sanctions. We only recognize sanctions which have been endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, which is the only body that has the legitimate power to impose sanctions on other countries. So this is a matter of principle. And we expect to apply them in all situations. 

GT: Many are worried about a potential armed conflict or war in the South China Sea. In your opinion, what would be the implications or consequences if an armed conflict burst out in the region and how do you evaluate the possibility of it happening? 

Abidin: I think all countries which have an interest in the South China Sea must recognize that they have a responsibility to the entire world to behave in a way which will promote peace and not war. Because these waterways, not only the South China Sea, but also the Strait of Malacca, are one of the most important waterways in the world. People say that anywhere from a third to a quarter, maybe even 40 percent of global trade, process through these waters. So it is in nobody's interest for a war or a conflict to break out in these waters. We hope that people will continue to be rational. 

All sides must continuously say that they want to work towards peace and to ensure that what has not broken up and in this respect, I'm very appreciative of the announcement made by the very top leadership of the Chinese government that they are working for peace and they do not want to see military conflict breaking out, which is exactly the position of the Malaysia government. 

GT: Could you share the latest development of the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations? 

Abidin: I think there has been an online discussion among all of the parties concerned. These discussions were not about the substance of the issue, but rather on procedures and positive way of moving forward. 

I think this is important because we are showing to the entire world that there is a common desire among all parties to be moving forward. 

GT: Will the COC negotiations be influenced by superpower tensions? 

I certainly hope not. On the part of Malaysia, we will judge on the basis of what is the best for us as well as for the international community at large. 

And as for people who are now managing foreign policy, we don't give in to foreign pressure. So we know the importance of the task at hand. And we will be working very hard at it.

Medical supplies provided by China arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 28. Photo: Xinhua

GT: How do you evaluate current China-Malaysia relations? Do you think the foundation of bilateral relations are still firm? 

We had changes in the government. As far as the bilateral relations between Malaysia and China are concerned, regardless of who is in power, it is quite clearly that there is a very strong feeling that we should have good bilateral relations with China. And certainly this is the desire of the Chinese government as well. So that's why there is always a political commitment to strong bilateral relations between our countries. 

Second, our relations go back thousands of years. And generally, from both China and Malaysian perspective, our interaction has been historically a happy one. So there is no negative history writing about our relations. Certainly, there is a very deep cultural relation. As you know, close to a quarter of the Malaysian population are of ethnic Chinese origin. They give us an extra dimension when it comes to having strong relations with China. 

In addition, China has been our largest trading partner for the past 10 years. We were last year, China's ninth largest trading partner.

In all, we have very strong, solid foundations for taking our bilateral relations forward. 

GT: Is Malaysia considering participating in the trial of any Chinese vaccines? Some media claimed China seeks to use the COVID-19 vaccine and masks only for diplomatic purposes. What's your take?

The problem with that [vaccine trial] is that we do not have a lot of people who are currently being infected. 

During the outbreak of the COVID-19 at the very beginning, we, Malaysia, donated millions of rubber gloves to China when China was having difficulties. When Malaysia was having difficulties, China also donated very generously. We do not see this as a transaction or a reciprocal exchange, but rather based on very good fundamental relations between both our countries. 

So now if vaccines are made available to us, we will consider that to be another expression of the very good historical relations between our two countries. 

Newspaper headline: Calm waters

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