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Mahathir Mohamad

Malaysia big part of Beijing’s belt and road vision for future, says Xi Jinping

Amid doubts over China-backed projects in Southeast Asian nation, Chinese president tells Mahathir Mohamad they need more ‘strategic communication’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2018, 2:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 1:49pm

China called for more “strategic communication” with Malaysia and more cooperation on infrastructure projects as the leaders of the two countries met on Monday, amid uncertainties in their bilateral ties.

President Xi Jinping made the remarks during a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose call for a review of Chinese projects has cast a shadow on relations between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur.

Mahathir, who is on a five-day visit to China, also met Premier Li Keqiang earlier in the day, when he asked for Beijing’s help to tackle the financial problems facing the Southeast Asian nation and warned against “colonialism” over less affluent countries.

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Xi and Mahathir both put on a positive front, with Xi saying the relationship between China and Malaysia had potential to grow in a new era.

The Chinese president also said Beijing hoped to strengthen cooperation with Kuala Lumpur, in particular on the “Belt and Road Initiative” – a vast trade and infrastructure strategy spanning Asia, Europe and Africa. He said the two sides should explore cooperation in other countries involved in the initiative, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Xi said China and Malaysia should increase their “strategic communication” and that Beijing wanted to cooperate more with Kuala Lumpur and other Asean members, and take a strong stance against unilateralism and protectionism.

Earlier, Mahathir and Li oversaw the signing of agreements on currency swaps and plans to increase imports of Malaysian frozen durian and palm oil.

In a joint statement released after the meetings, the two countries pledged to “adopt a strategic and long-term vision” and to “enhance political mutual trust and practical cooperation on the basis of equality, mutual respect and mutual benefit”.

Uncertainty has hung over relations between China and Malaysia since Mahathir came to power in May. He has announced plans to review at least three major Beijing-led projects, including the US$20 billion East Coast Rail Link and two pipeline projects worth a combined US$2 billion.

The new Malaysian prime minister is in China seeking to renegotiate billions of dollars of China-led investment projects in his country, many of which were endorsed by Mahathir’s predecessor, Najib Razak, who is now enveloped in a corruption investigation.

But Beijing has been eager to use Mahathir’s visit to present a united front with Malaysia, China’s biggest trading partner among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, amid an escalating trade war with the United States.

Neither side mentioned the Beijing-led projects in the joint statements, but Mahathir said his country wanted not only free but also fair trade with China.

“I agree with you. Free trade is the way to go. And of course free trade should also be fair trade,” Mahathir said during his meeting with Li. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries.”

He said he hoped China could understand the problems facing Malaysia today.

“And I hope that China – and I believe that China – will look sympathetically towards the problems that we have to resolve and perhaps help us in resolving some of our internal fiscal problems,” he said.

A source from the Malaysian delegation said Mahathir’s trip had “already exceeded our expectations”.

“The Chinese have been very generous in their hospitality and have expressed gratitude for Tun [Mahathir’s] honesty and very direct sharing of views. The same extends to this morning’s meeting, those involved on our side were happy with how it went,” the source said.

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Oh Ei Sun, a political analyst and former Malaysian official, said “China cannot afford not to be understanding” because the large trading volume between the two sides and Malaysia’s strategic position means the country is “crucial for the viability of the Belt and Road Initiative”.

“Malaysia is one of the more important open economies in the world. In this increasingly protectionist world, it is important for China to ally itself with more such economies,” he said.

During his meeting with Mahathir, Li said Beijing would not change its “friendly approach” towards Kuala Lumpur despite the change in administration, and stressed that China and Asean shared “a common interest in global free trade”.

“I believe Prime Minister Mahathir wants to express our common position on free trade,” he said. “No matter what changes have happened in our two countries, China-Malaysia ties have been solid, stable and upwards.”

Mahathir also said he would work to improve ties with China despite “ups and downs” and that Malaysia did not “believe in confrontation with any country”.

“Malaysia has a policy of being friendly to every country in the world irrespective of their ideologies,” he said.

The Malaysian leader will wrap up his China trip on Tuesday.

Additional reporting by Bhavan Jaipragas and Kinling Lo