Malaysia may need to tread carefully
Consistent with his pre-election pledge, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad has initiated a review of his country’s foreign relations with neighbours. This includes analysis and evaluation of the existing matrix and Malaysia’s engagement pertaining to the economic, employment, energy, and commercial sectors.
This view has led the Malaysian government to already initiate a crackdown on illegal workers without legal work permits in Malaysia from other countries. Thousands have already been arrested in this connection and are awaiting deportation. Fear and anxiety have spread all over the country. The government apparently intends to revisit the recruitment process and remove potential areas of syndicated corruption.
This dynamic has also led Mahathir to undertake an important five-day official visit to China -- an important partner of Malaysia -- from August 17. It was aimed at opening up new prospects. The Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian highlighted the importance of the visit.
China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for nine consecutive years and also the largest investor in Malaysia’s manufacturing industry for the last two consecutive years. They have also been the largest source country for foreign tourists to Malaysia for six consecutive years. This visit had special significance as this was Mahathir’s first after his recent electoral victory.
He had visited China seven times. Analysts have interpreted this as an effort to reach consensus on how to synchronize their development strategies.
Mahathir’s visit had several dimensions. The important areas of engagement led Mahathir to have in-depth discussion with President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. These deliberations assumed particular importance because, ahead of the Malaysian elections, Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition had accused the then ruling party of selling out national interests in its dealings with China.
The delicate aspect of the visit had been carefully underlined by Mahathir in a press conference ahead of his visit. He had touched on the on-going charges of different financial scandals and unfair engagement that had smeared the Najib government’s various China-backed projects worth more than $22 billion. Najib was subsequently accused of agreeing to quick deals with Beijing in return for payoffs.
This paradigm was given importance because, consistent with his pre-election pledge, Mahathir is now trying to cut Malaysia’s national debt, which has ballooned to nearly $250 billion, and has also eroded the value of Malaysia’s currency -- the ringgit.
Consequently, it was not a surprise that Mahathir drew attention to the fact that wealthy countries should not use their wealth to take advantage of less developed nations.
One must admit that such a dialogue would also be pertinent in the context of Bangladesh’s bilateral trade relations with China and India, with whom it has a total trade deficit of more than $15bn. We have to learn how to deal with such a situation from Malaysia.
Mahathir also used his visit to address the issue of Chinese private investment in Malaysia. In this regard, he had a fruitful meeting with Jack Ma, head of Alibaba. Ma pledged to help Malaysia in two important areas: Marketing and a fast delivery system.
The Mahathir administration is also trying to come to an acceptable position with regard to certain realities. One of them is the drive by China’s state-owned enterprises taking an increasingly prominent role in the South China Sea.
A study published in August by Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies shows how Chinese SOEs are moving forward in various industries. It is being suggested that the Malaysian government will have to deal with this sensitive matter to the satisfaction of China and itself. It is proving to be difficult for the countries within this region because the Chinese SOEs enjoy a considerable edge over their counterparts because of their scale, resources, full support from their government, and the presence of their military component in the South China Sea.
Consequently, strategic analysts monitoring Malaysian advances towards China have urged that Malaysia needs to tread carefully, recognize regional realities, and retain full faith not only in the principle of ASEAN inclusiveness, but also in the functionality of the region.
Muhammad Zamir is a former ambassador, and an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]