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Mahathir Mohamad

China to take ‘humble’ tack to win over Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

At a time of tense Sino-US relations, Beijing will roll out the red carpet for the Malaysian leader during his five-day stay

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 August, 2018, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 August, 2018, 10:28pm

China will seek to stabilise ties with Malaysia, rolling out the red carpet for the Southeast Asian nation’s prime minister on Friday as Beijing tries to head off growing tensions with Washington.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s five-day trip will be the first state visit by a foreign leader since China’s leadership wrapped up their annual informal retreat in the northern seaside resort of Beidaihe, where a major topic of discussion was widely believed to be the ever-stretched relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

Beijing’s escalating trade and security conflicts with Washington and growing wariness in the West about China’s broader ambitions, have fuelled a heated debate in China over whether it needs to fine-tune its increasingly hawkish foreign policy.

Amid the rising friction and suspicions, China might feel it needed to take a more “humble” approach to gain the support of smaller neighbouring nations such as Malaysia, Chinese analysts said.

Mahathir will start his trip in Hangzhou, visiting technology companies and carmakers before heading to the capital on Sunday for a meeting with top Chinese leaders, including Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping.

Beijing is keen to build “political trust” with the new government in Malaysia, a country key to Xi’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” and stronger ties in Southeast Asia as it grapples with disputes in the contested South China Sea.

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“China has been more patient, compared with [its approach] maybe five or six years ago, and has been more willing to compromise,” said Shi Yinhong, an international affairs specialist at Renmin University. “There are clear signs of adjustment.”

Shi said one example of that change was China’s restrained reaction to Mahathir’s decision to review at least three major Beijing-led projects – the US$20 billion East Coast Rail Link and two pipeline projects worth a combined US$2 billion.

In contrast to the rhetoric aimed at Manila after an international court rejected most of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, China has not ratcheted up anti-Malaysian propaganda since Mahathir’s decision.

“It is understandable that Malaysia is worried about the sudden influx of Chinese investment and in such a large amount,” said Shi, who also is an adviser to China’s State Council.

“China has reflected upon it and has adopted a humble attitude towards the backlash [from Kuala Lumpur].”

Mahathir seeking greater balance in Malaysia-China ties

But he also warned that “Malaysia shouldn’t set too high the negotiation price” when resetting the terms of projects with China.

To build ties with the new government and restart projects, China over the last month has sent two top officials – State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Guo Yezhou, vice-minister of the international department of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee – to Kuala Lumpur for talks with Mahathir.

Xu Liping, a professor with the Institute of Asian-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China hoped to build “political trust” with the new Mahathir administration.

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“This Mahathir government is different from the last – there are many new ministers who do not have governing experience – so this will be a good time to get to know each other,” Xu said.

But Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said Mahathir’s position on the disputed marine area could potentially disrupt the two countries’ delicate effort to build trust.

The 93-year-old leader cautioned again in an interview with Associated Press against any further militarisation of the South China Sea, repeating that warships must not be permanently stationed there.

“Mahathir’s high-profile stance in the South China Sea has indicated that Malaysia may become more vocal on the South China Sea issue,” Wu said. “This could create certain impact [on] China-Malaysia relations and future development in the South China Sea.

“But there is a risk in Mahathir’s attempt to balance between China and the US,” he said. “If not done properly, it could set back China-Malaysia relations.”