Defence high on the agenda for Malaysian PM’s China visit

Najib Razak’s week-long stay comes as Beijing tries to extend its influence in Southeast Asia

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 8:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 8:33am

Military and economic cooperation will be high on the agenda during Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s week-long visit to China, which starts on Monday.

Najib arrives as China is spearheading efforts to win over Asean nations as the US faces setbacks in its pivot to Asia strategy. But observers said it remained to be seen how far China could draw Southeast Asian nations closer to Beijing and away from Washington.

Malaysia to buy navy vessels from China in blow to US

Najib was quoted by state-run Xinhua as saying that military cooperation would be highlighted, and that the two nations would finalise “the first significant defence deal” during his trip.

Malaysia would sign a contract to buy littoral mission ships from China during Najib’s trip, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in a Face­book post. The message, posted on Thursday, was later removed. If finalised, the deal would be important for Beijing.

“The deal would be a big strategic and diplomatic success for China, and would make the US nervous,” Shi Yinhong, an international relations specialist at Renmin University, said. “But still, Malaysia will not give an important seaport to the Chinese military.”

Ties between China and Southeast Asia have been complicated by disputes in the South China Sea. In a move seen as an attack on Singapore, which is not a claimant to the disputed waters, Beijing called on the city state to play a constructive role to forge ties between China and Southeast Asia.

Beijing recently receivedVietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xhan Phuc and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who said Manila would “realign” with China. Improved ties between China and the Philippines would have an impact on how other claimant states, including Malaysia, dealt with China, Shi said.

What has Malaysian leader Najib Razak’s China trip got to do with 1MDB?

Najib’s visit to China comes amid strained ties between Malaysia and the United States after the US Justice Department filed lawsuits linked to a money-laundering investigation at state-owned investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

State-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp agreed to pay US$2.3 billion in cash and take on an unspecified amount of debt from 1MDB. A deep-pocketed Beijing, with US$3 trillion in reserves, is also seeing the potential of leveraging its economic might to gain geopolitical advantages.

Najib’s visit will further strengthen the already significant economic cooperation between the two countries. And this time, it is more a question of deepening and upgrading,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

But whether Beijing’s strategy is working is subject to scrutiny.

China says Philippines should copy Malaysia's ‘amicable’ way of handling disputes in South China Sea

Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, was given a red carpet welcome to Beijing in 2011. Two years later, Manila successfully challenged China’s South China Sea claims through an arbitral tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“The claimant states will not give up their claims, and there will be turbulence,” said Zhao Haili, an expert in Malaysian affairs at Xiamen University.