Malaysian PM hopes to improve image with China trip, analysts say

Shunned by Western leaders over a financial scandal, Najib Razak wants to show he is still taken seriously by a major power

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 3:39pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2016, 3:39pm

Malaysia’s prime minister, embattled at home because of a financial scandal that prompted a US government investigation, hopes to use his visit to Beijing this week to woo new investment and buoy up his image back home as he is shunned by Western leaders, analysts say.

Prime Minister Najib Razak will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and third-ranking official Zhang Dejiang, the head of the legislature, during his seven-day trip that ends on Sunday.

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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing on Monday that bilateral cooperation agreements covering a “broad range” of areas would be signed during the visit. She gave no details.

Najib has been implicated in a US government investigation into massive fraud at a Malaysian investment fund he founded known by the initials 1MDB. The Department of Justice says in a lawsuit seeking to seize assets in the US that at least US$3.5 billion was stolen from the fund and diverted through a web of shell companies and bank accounts in Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the US.

Malaysia’s attorney general has defended Najib, even while his popularity at home has plummeted in recent months.

James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at Australia’s University of Tasmania, said Najib wanted to attract more Chinese money to make up for a drop in foreign direct investment from Western countries spooked by the scandal. He also wanted to show that “there are still powerful countries around the world that are still willing to give him the five-star or red carpet treatment”.

“He’s showing the Malaysian domestic audience that a new upcoming power like China is still willing to host him, because it is quite obvious that he can’t get the same treatment in Western capitals anymore,” Chin said.

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While Najib has more riding on the visit, the Chinese government is also keen to increase its clout with Malaysia as it looks to develop its One Belt, One Road initiative. Under Xi’s signature foreign economic expansion strategy, China aims to strengthen land and sea links and bilateral cooperation with the rest of Asia, Africa and Europe. One part of that is a planned high-speed railway from Singapore to the southwest of China, which will pass through Malaysia.

“China for its part wants to be closer to Malaysia in economic and political terms because it’s trying to draw Malaysia into its sphere of influence,” Chin said.

While Malaysia is one of several Asian nations that has disputed claims with China in the South China Sea, it has been relatively understated compared with the feuding among fellow claimants Vietnam and the Philippines.

Last month, Najib said that Malaysia would not compromise on its South China Sea claims, but wants them to be hashed out through dialogue and peaceful negotiations.

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Relatives of Chinese passengers on MH370, the Malaysia Airlines flight that went missing in 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, were clamouring to meet with Najib during his visit. About 10 relatives were inside the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday attempting to apply for a meeting to raise their questions and complaints about the search for the plane.