Talks over stalled China-backed rail link still ongoing, says Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad
- Work on the project ground to a halt nine months after breaking ground, following the elder statesman’s landslide election victory in May
Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has confirmed that negotiations on the country’s China-backed East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project are still ongoing, although there is no time frame for when talks will wind up.
“We are [in talks]. It’s not an easy thing to negotiate … I can’t tell how long [it will take],” he told the media after delivering a keynote address at the World Chinese Economic Summit, a two-day conference aimed at enhancing connectivity and business link-ups between China, Southeast Asia and Europe.
On Thursday, chairman of government advisory body the Council of Eminent Persons, Daim Zainuddin, described the 80 billion ringgit (US$19.2 billion) ECRL project as a “sensitive” issue that will take time to come to fruition.
The former finance minister has been tasked with its management, and has told the media that the nation does not want to upset its “long-established friendship with China”.
The ECRL is just one of the projects that was approved by Malaysia’s former ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional.
When Mahathir led his Pakatan Harapan coalition to a shock electoral victory in May, he suspended a host of mega infrastructure projects signed with China, saying that the country’s finances were in no shape to support such large-scale endeavours.
The suspending of projects worth some US$22 billion, as well as pointed remarks about neocolonialism, cemented the perception of Mahathir as an Asian leader willing to resist Chinese influence in the region and assert the autonomy of smaller states.
With the Asean summit coming up next week, Mahathir, 93, has also worked hard on bolstering ties with Japan amid an escalating rivalry between the US and China, making three official trips to the East Asian nation in just six months.
He was recently awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers, a presentation that is reflective of Tokyo’s endorsement of the elder statesman.
Observers have noted that Tokyo may hope Malaysia takes its side in its push for navigational freedoms in the South China Sea, the focal point for several territorial disputes between China and various Asean nations, including Malaysia.
Mahathir has maintained that China is an important partner in policy and business. In his speech on Friday, he attributed Malaysia’s developmental successes in part to the country’s ethnic Chinese community.
“Without them … development would be lagging behind. They have come to live here, to become Malaysian citizens, and to help in the development of this country,” he said, adding that the Chinese diaspora had a knack for creating wealth wherever they went.
“The Chinese are a peaceful people who have contributed much to (the) development of (the) whole world, wherever they may be,” he said to applause.