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Malaysia

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim to emphasise bilateral ties and Uygur rights on China visit

  • The prime-minister-in-waiting is visiting Beijing next week, meeting officials to speak on the future of China-Malaysia relations
  • His support of overseas Muslims is seen as a necessary component of domestic politics in the Muslim-majority Asean country
PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2018, 8:41pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2018, 8:45pm

As democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim makes his way to the prime ministership promised to him by 2020, Malaysia’s largest trade partner has begun testing the waters to see if the leader-in-waiting will continue premier Mahathir Mohamad’s occasionally adversarial approach.

In a recent interview, Anwar told Nikkei that on his trip to China next week, he would be meeting officials to speak on Malaysian rule of law and the future of China-Malaysia ties.

“They want to know from me what the future is like,” Anwar told the Nikkei Asian Review, adding that he would emphasise the need for a strong bilateral relationship.

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He also urged Beijing to recognise the rights of the Uygur Muslim community, particularly their right to freedom of religion and movement, and said that any form of violence – whether by the state or by society – could not be condoned.

Observers have expressed concern that a prime-minister-in-waiting currently positioned on the government backbench may butt heads with the incumbent on matters of domestic or foreign policy. Beijing’s attempt to get a grasp of future relations between the two countries may add to this perceived tension, particularly given Mahathir’s firm stance on China and the recent cancellation of several China-backed megaprojects on fiscal grounds.

“Beijing wants to know if Anwar will pursue a different policy to Mahathir’s,” said James Chin, director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute. “Anwar will have to take a less strong stand than Mahathir given that the latter has stature as Asia’s eldest statesman. Anwar has less political clout – but by the time Anwar takes over, the issues we see today such as cancellation of Chinese projects, will be old news and so Anwar will have less to worry about.”

Ngeow Chow Bing of University Malaya’s Institute of China Studies said Beijing was in for no surprises, as “there will be more continuity in Malaysia’s China policy rather than substantial change”.

“There’s a perception that Anwar is more pro-US, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he will lean towards the west and more indifferent towards China,” he said. “At the moment he will be supportive of Mahathir.”

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Observers believe Anwar’s recent comments on the Uygur – which come after Malaysia released 11 Uygurs from prison and resettled them in Turkey despite China’s demands they be handed over – were not raised to attack Beijing, but merely to consolidate both Mahathir’s and Anwar’s position as Muslim leaders.

“Malaysia has always been supportive of the Uygurs and wants Beijing to recognise the rights of Muslims in China – but there is no talk of an independence movement,” Chin said.

Ngeow echoed this, saying that as a leader “looked up to by the Muslim public, [Anwar] is concerned about the developments in Xinjiang. But I think he’s willing to listen and understand, not just for the sake of criticising China.”

It is a necessary component of domestic politics in the Muslim-majority Asean country that leaders both in-waiting and incumbent must be seen to protect the rights of Muslims across the world. Malaysian leaders have also criticised Myanmar over the Rohingya genocide, much to Naypyidaw’s consternation and despite Malaysia’s own refugee-unfriendly policies, according to economist Woo Wing Thye of Malaysia’s Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.

China features too heavily in Malaysia’s trade dealings for the nation to run the risk of upsetting Beijing – and a general principle of current don Mahathir is that Malaysia does not want to be a client state of the United States.

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This stand was made clear in recent statements from Malaysia’s top trade negotiator, Norazman Ayob, who emphasised the importance of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, stating it was a top priority and that the conflict between the US and China had provided impetus for its early conclusion.

“Malaysia will not want to choose sides in Big Power confrontation unless one side is actively involved in trying to unseat the government,” Woo said. “Anwar will be no different from either Mahathir or Abdul Razak [the former prime minister who established Malaysia-China diplomatic relations] – China is too important to be offended unintentionally.”