China-Malaysia: Is the Tilt Real?

15 Oct, 2013    ·   4141

Aparupa Bhattacherjee comments on Sino-Malaysian ties in the wake of Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Malaysia

Malaysia recently hosted the Chinese President Xi Jinping, who visited on 3 October 2013. This is the first trip made by the president to Southeast Asia since he took office in March 2013. Malaysia was the second destination of this trip, which started in Indonesia and ended in Bali, where Xi Jinping attended the 21st informal economic leaders’ meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. His visit to Malaysia is seen as a milestone in strengthening Sino-Malaysian relations, especially economically.

How will this visit benefit Malaysia as a nation? What will be the impact of this visit on Malaysia and the Malaysian Chinese?

The wide media coverage in Malaysia has made prominent the enthusiasm of both the government and civil society in welcoming the Chinese President. Although this is one of the first visits of the Chinese head of state to Malaysia, diplomatic exchanges between the two countries are not rare. The Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to Malaysia on 1 August this year witnessed the foundation for better cooperation in bilateral achievements. During this current visit, it was agreed by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Xi Jinping to upgrade bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership. This partnership stresses on economic collaboration. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner, and Malaysia is China’s largest trading partner within the Southeast Asian region. Both the leaders signed a new five year pact aimed at increasing bilateral trade to USD 160 billion by the year 2017. The five- year pact for economic and trade cooperation signed by the two countries covers other areas of cooperation including agriculture, energy and mineral resources, information and telecommunication, education, tourism and others. There are several joint projects by both countries such as the Qinzhou Industrial Park in China and Kuantan Industrial park in Malaysia’s eastern corridors that have envisaged attracting more private investment within China and Malaysia. Beijing also showed their encouragement in participating in several infrastructure projects in Malaysia, especially the high speed railway construction linking Kuala Lampur and Singapore, thus promoting regional connectivity.

Bilateral ties between China and Malaysia have always been very strong. Historically, Malaysia was the first ASEAN member state to establish diplomatic relations with China. Given that China-sponsored Communism in Southeast Asian countries during this time was considered a big problem, rapprochement with China was an unthinkable task that was only accomplished by Malaysia. This incident is given pivotal importance by China and also paves the way for intimacy between these two countries. Another binding factor is the people to people connection between China and Malaysia. Malaysia has the largest population of overseas Chinese, and in addition, the Malaysian Chinese population in the country is approximately 26 per cent of the population.

Interestingly, in the year 2012, the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lampur was the second-largest issuer of Chinese visas in the world. This bond between China and Malaysia is best illustrated by the fact that although both countries are in dispute over some of the South China Sea islands, a vehement protest has rarely been lodged by Malaysia against any Chinese move in the South China Sea. On 26 March 2013, when the People’s Liberation Army conducted a major naval exercise close to James Shoal (claimed by both China and Malaysia), no major objection was raised by the Malaysians. The only explanation of this behaviour lies in the country’s perception of its relationship with China. Another aspect of this explanation could be that US relations with Malaysia are seen with suspicion among major sections of the Malaysian Muslim population. These sentiments have been a significant reason for the government not making the defence agreement between US and Malaysia publicly known. Nevertheless, this does not prove that there is complete shift of Malaysian sentiments towards China. The increase in the number of visits to Malaysia by US navy ships negates Malaysia’s neutral stand. Malaysian leaders are embracing China’s rise and economic development; nonetheless there is no assurance that they won’t change their approach if there is a security threat to the region or to the nation.

Huge enthusiasm for the China-Malaysia relationship has been shown by the Malaysian Chinese and the overseas Chinese in Malaysia. In a luncheon hosted by the overseas Chinese in Malaysia, President Xi Jinping pointed out that the overseas Chinese and the Malaysian Chinese are the main contributors towards Sino-Malaysian friendship. In addition to this, it could also be seen as a positive contributor to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s political career. The Chinese vote has played a pivotal role in recent elections in Malaysia. The 2013 Malaysian election witnessed a drastic shift in Chinese votes and allegiance to the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) towards Pakatan Rakayat, the opposition party. Whether this visit will be able to pull Chinese loyalty back to the UMNO, the party in power, can be only answered in time.