Why Malaysia’s China policy is unlikely to change, for now, despite election shock

‘There is more reason than not’ to expect Putrajaya to stay the course regarding China despite the stunning election result, Ankit Panda writes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 4:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 9:12pm

By all accounts, it shouldn’t have been possible. Years of gerrymandering, malapportionment, and even a desperate attempt to legislate “fake news” ¬ a euphemism for political speech opposing the incumbent – were supposed to leave last week’s Malaysian general election a sadly predictable affair. 

Even with the deck stacked in favour of Prime Minister Najib Razak and the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, Malaysian voters delivered a political earthquake. Mahathir Mohamad, the nonagenarian fourth prime minister who ruled Malaysia for more than two decades and oversaw its emergence as a prosperous upper-middle income regional heavyweight in Southeast Asia, would return to serve as the country’s seventh prime minister. 

Mahathir led a confused opposition coalition united mostly by its distaste for Najib, who had been besieged by accusations of corruption stemming from the 1MDB scandal, and little else. Even as urban Malaysia voters – long frustrated by Barisan Nasional’s stranglehold on national politics – rejoiced in the results, the prospects for a smooth transition were unclear. 

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But so far, all has gone according to plan. Mahathir has been sworn in, setting in motion what had been the opposition’s plan all along: the full pardon by King Muhammad V of Anwar Ibrahim, who had been imprisoned on drummed up sodomy charges.

The Malaysian election result has stirred anxiety in China, where observers fear that Mahathir – still spry at 92 – will follow through on his promise to review a series of pro-China moves Najib undertook during his term. This disquietude also is partly based on Mahathir’s record during his 22 years as the country’s leader through 2003. 

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“We need to study all the things done by the previous government,” Mahathir said last Thursday, before he was sworn in. “China has a long experience of dealing with unequal treaties and China dealt with them by renegotiating.”

However, the new prime minister’s promise to renegotiate deals with China, as promised during his acceptance speech, is unlikely to come to fruition immediately. 

To be sure, Mahathir has a clear set of preferences with regard to Malaysia’s relationship with China. He has accused Najib of “selling” out Malaysia to Beijing and has voiced concern about the activities of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy near the features Malaysia has claimed in the South China Sea. 

In many ways, Mahathir’s surprise election victory and promise to review a former government’s China-related deals bring to mind Sri Lanka’s January 2015 election, which propelled Maithripala Sirisena to the presidency.

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Sirisena, too, had campaigned on balancing the country’s relations with China and did follow through on reviewing deals. 

But circumstances in Malaysia are different. For one, the domestic political revolution that is underway with the first formation of a government by a coalition other than Barisan Nasional leaves plenty of institutional uncertainty ahead. Beyond this unpredictability, the new coalition government may find itself hewing first to pressing domestic concerns before embarking on a radical campaign of repositioning Malaysia between China and the United States. 

Even if Mahathir follows through with reviewing the terms of the China-backed East Coast Rail Link or the Forest City development, he could find he lacks the leverage necessary to drive a hard bargain with Beijing. 

For starters, there is still little clarity about how Mahathir’s cabinet will shake out. The foreign affairs portfolio remains vacant and Mat Sabu, the newly appointed defence minister, has his focus set on narrow matters related to the Malaysian armed forces’ materiel and capabilities. If Mahathir were to pursue a radical turn in Putrajaya’s approach to China, it is far from clear that the bureaucracy would implement a new set of policies with alacrity. 

Even if Mahathir should follow through with reviewing the terms of the China-backed East Coast Rail Link mega-transportation corridor, or the Forest City development in the southern reaches of Peninsular Malaysia, he could soon find that he lacks the leverage necessary to drive a hard bargain with Beijing. 

Furthermore, Mahathir’s primary concern for now appears to be preventing Malaysia from resorting to debt-equity swaps with Beijing – as Sri Lanka did – and effectively trading sovereignty for debt relief. These concerns are well-placed, but Mahathir may find that pragmatism will pay dividends. 

A curious wild card remains how Malaysia might choose to behave within Asean, going forward. The country is one of four Association of Southeast Asian Nations claimant states in the South China Sea, but, under Najib, chose not to speak up in these disputes and instead pursued pragmatic cooperation. Should Mahathir feel, for domestic reasons mainly, a need to show that he will stand up to China, Malaysia could find itself standing side by side with Vietnam, the most forward-leaning of the Asean claimant states. 

While the historic results of Malaysia’s general election no doubt introduce uncertainty into predictions, there is more reason than not to believe that Putrajaya will remain on its existing trajectory. For the moment, the shock waves from the earthquake Malaysian voters delivered at the ballot box last week have yet to reshape regional geopolitics. 

Ankit Panda is a senior editor at the Diplomat