Malaysia’s rethink on deals with China and Singapore is in keeping with ancient Chinese statecraft
The decision by the new Pakatan Harapan government of Malaysia to renegotiate unfair agreements and to postpone the high-speed rail project with Singapore has been questioned by some and described as not being in keeping with ancient Chinese morality.
In fact, ancient Chinese history is full of examples where treaties are broken and, far from being condemned, the instances are held up as examples of good statecraft.
During the Spring and Autumn period, prominent Yue state strategist Fan Li was held captive along with his king Guojian by the state of Wu. For three years, both men repeatedly pledged loyalty to the Wu. Upon their return to Yue, both men worked to rebuild their state, finally successfully destroying Wu in 493 BCE.
In 207 BCE, Liu Bang, the future founder of the Han dynasty, found himself in a greatly inferior position relative to his rival Xiang Yu. At the famous Hong Men banquet, Liu Bang pledged total subservience to Xiang Yu. Barely five years later, at the battle of Gaixia, Liu Bang destroyed the army of Xiang Yu, whose suicide was immortalised in the opera, Farewell My Concubine. Had Liu Bang kept his word, the Han dynasty, one of the longest reigning dynasties in Chinese history, would never have existed.
Again, during the Three Kingdoms era, Liu Bei and his famed adviser Zhuge Liang went into Yi province, supposedly to help governor Liu Zhang against the warlord Cao Cao. Barely two years later, Liu Bei's army defeated Liu Zhang's and took over full control of Yi. Rather than a display of treachery, the battle of Yi province is considered a wonderful display of military strategy.
More recent examples of successful renegotiation of unfair treatment also abound in Chinese statecraft. Hong Kong Island was ceded permanently to Britain under the infamous Treaty of Nanking in 1842, when opium traders were legally able to traffic in addictive substances and even win territorial concessions. And in the 1980s, the British government initially tried to enforce this unfair treaty and two others, before accepting the inevitability of total withdrawal, given the practical reality of China's rise.
Similarly, while China has signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, faced with unjust actions when territorial arguments were brought to this court, China did not participate in the proceedings nor recognised the verdict.
As Mao Zedong said, a revolution is not a dinner party. Malaysia has undergone nothing less than a democratic revolution and change of government. It is totally appropriate and in keeping with the finest tradition of Chinese statecraft that Malaysia's government seeks to overturn unfair treaties and treatment.
Dr Ong Hean Teik, Penang, Malaysia