China and Malaysia must continue to reap benefits of cooperation
Mahathir Mohamad knows there are rewards to be had by working with Beijing on the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, free trade and the settling of disputes
The pragmatism and mutual respect Beijing and Kuala Lumpur need to adopt for their relations to thrive and prosper were plainly on show during Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s five-day visit to China. A joint communique after talks with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang expressed the desire to enhance trust and cooperation with an eye on joint benefit. In practical terms, that means working together on the “Belt and Road Initiative”, promoting free trade and amicably dealing with differences and disputes such as those over investment contracts and the South China Sea. It is apparent that the change in Malaysia’s government has not affected the nations’ long-standing friendly ties.
Of particular concern for Mahathir has been multibillion-dollar projects with Chinese companies signed by his predecessor, Najib Razak. Several are schemes critical to the belt and road, chief among them a US$20 billion high-speed rail link on the Malaysian east coast and two energy pipelines costing US$2.3 billion. Mahathir said yesterday work had been cancelled until the three projects could be financially justified. Najib’s administration has been accused of corruption and the former prime minister already faces charges. But despite the uncertainties, Mahathir has promised to keep an open mind and he said his country wanted free and fair trade with China.
Malaysia’s US$250 billion debt is an understandable cause for Mahathir’s concerns. He will need to make crucial decisions in coming days after receiving advice from an investigative panel looking into public finances and the economy. But he is well aware that China has an important role to play in Malaysia’s future growth and development. China is Malaysia’s biggest trading partner and Malaysia is China’s largest among Southeast Asian countries.
Mahathir’s promised economic reforms hinge on embracing technology and China offers huge potential. His tour of the Hangzhou campus of e-commerce giant Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, and headquarters of carmaker Geely and watching a performance of drones produced by DJI showed a keen interest and awareness of Chinese innovation and technological know-how. Later, he went by high-speed rail to Shanghai, a first-hand opportunity to experience the benefits of a system similar to the one he is reviewing on his country’s east coast. The project is about mutual gain; it will provide tens of thousands of jobs and has the potential to boost regional connectivity and the local economy.
China and Malaysia have much to offer one another. In the 44 years since establishing diplomatic relations, their cooperation through shared interests has brought great benefit. As their leaders have agreed in Beijing, there is every reason that should continue and be strengthened.