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Wise approach from Mahathir can benefit Malaysia and China

Since being returned as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad has allowed pragmatism to prevail and he is all for Chinese investment as long as it is for the good of the nation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2018, 5:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2018, 5:15am

China and its neighbours need to keep ties on an even keel, for the sake of their economic and diplomatic well-being. Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad may have given a different impression during hotly contested elections, but since his surprise return to the prime minister’s job, pragmatism has prevailed.

He encourages Chinese investment, although stresses it must be on terms that benefit his nation. The positive outlook inspires confidence that smooth ties can be assured. Mahathir told the South China Morning Post he welcomed foreign investment that added jobs at all levels, transferred technology and skills and improved the global environment for Malaysian products.

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Lopsided deals, he argued during electioneering, were wrongly agreed with Chinese companies by Najib Razak, his predecessor, and were not in his country’s interest as there were few, if any, benefits for Malaysians.

He praised Jack Ma Yun, whose Alibaba Group, which owns the Post, opened its first Southeast Asian office in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. The Chinese entrepreneur pledged technology transfers and training for local young people, prompting Mahathir to contend he was giving Malaysia the type of investment that it needed.

Although Mahathir had been supportive of China while prime minister from 1981 to 2003, his plans to review projects and cancel them if necessary caused concern among Chinese investors. His ire was directed at two: the US$14 billion east rail project given without tender to the China Communications Construction Company, and the joint venture luxury US$100 billion Forest City project being built in the south aimed at wealthy Chinese from the mainland and Singapore. The former, he claimed, was overpriced and would likely not involve Malaysian workers, while housing at the latter would be unaffordable to most in Malaysia and lead to an influx of too many foreigners that he claimed no country would welcome.

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Mahathir has been helpfully explicit about his views of Malaysia’s relationship with China. He supports the “Belt and Road Initiative” and the benefits it will bring. But unlike some countries, he does not fear China’s rise, instead viewing it as a big market and an opportunity. On the thorny issue of disputed territory with China in the South China Sea, he seeks a peaceful resolution and believes joint patrols of the waters and keeping warships away is the best approach.

China and Malaysia may not always see eye to eye; even the firmest of allies can disagree. Mahathir has removed much uncertainty and taken a wise approach that has heartened Chinese, ambassador to Malaysia, Bai Tian, among them. Preparations are already being made for him to visit Beijing. There is much scope to develop a stronger, mutually beneficial, relationship.