Malaysia-China Ties: Improving and Degrading Simultaneously
By: Jacob Crandall
Following the US global ban on Chinese tech-company Huawei, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad came out stating that Malaysia would continue to roll out the company’s 5G cellular expansion. Additionally, China is investing heavily into Malaysia’s infrastructure with their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a global development strategy of China consisting of infrastructure development and heavy investments with 152 nations. The month following the 5G announcement, Malaysia accepted 12 surveillance drones from the US. Malaysia is hedging their options by attempting to continue their monetary access to Chinese investments while staying under the US security umbrella. Following talks with ASEAN last week, it is clear that China and the US want to flex their influence in Malaysia.
Following the shock election victory in May 2018, the new Malaysian government led by 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad decided to review many Sino-Malaysian projects under the BRI that were reached under former Prime Minister Najib Razak. It should be noted that many accused Najib Razak of pocketing millions of dollars in the BRI negotiations. One of the most notable projects under review was the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) – a 688-kilometer rail line designed to connect the east and west coasts of Malaysia. Originally tagged at $20 billion dollars, renegotiation and adjustments have led the cost to be cut by a third. Construction of the ECRL continued last month following a year-long hold on the project. China seems determined to improve relations and continue the BRI investment. Chinese-Malaysian bilateral trade quantity has reached over $100 billion (US$) and China has remained Malaysia’s largest trading partner for ten consecutive years
Last month, Malaysia finished their exercises that featured a series of missile firings in the South China Sea. The South China Sea contains the Spratly Islands, a group of islands that are highly disputed between many nations, predominately the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan. It is also a waterway where $5 trillion of goods transits through each year. In the recent years China has slowly encroached into this region militarizing islands and causing international concern. Malaysian defense minister Mohamad Bin Sabu said in a statement, “The success of the missile firings is proof that the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) is able to undertake operations in the South China Sea. The execution of these exercises will assure the maritime community, especially those on the eastern seaboard of peninsular Malaysia, that the RMN and the Malaysian Armed Forces stand ready to uphold peace and defend their interests in the South China Sea.” Though the missile tests and military training were planned exercises, they demonstrate the military capability in the South China Sea region. The last known firings of anti-ship missiles by the RMN were carried out during a naval exercise in 2014.
When asked about the West in an interview last year, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said, “We have had China as a neighbor for 2,000 years, we were never conquered by them. But the Europeans came in 1509, in two years, they conquered Malaysia”. In a 2014 study, the Pew Research Center found that 74% of Malaysia views China favorably. It is clear that despite issues in the South China Sea, bilateral relations will grow between the two nations. Malaysia will continue to become more dependent on China as heavy investment continues.
Anderson, C. (2019, July 18). “South China Sea: Malaysia launches anti-ship missiles in warning to Xi Jinping”. Retrieved from https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1154757/south-china-sea-news-world-war-3-latest-malaysia-beijing-jinping-spratly-island
Chang, P. (2019, August 02). “US-China tussle should not mean Malaysia must pick a side.” Retrieved August 03, 2019, from https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3020955/why-us-should-not-push-malaysia-pick-sides-washingtons-rivalry
Chang, P. (2019, August 02). “US-China tussle should not mean Malaysia must pick a side.” Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3020955/why-us-should-not-push-malaysia-pick-sides-washingtons-rivalry
“How Countries View China”. (2015, June 01). Retrieved August 1, 2019, from https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2014/07/14/chapter-2-chinas-image/
“Malaysia election: What just happened?” (2018, May 11). Retrieved July 30, 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44063736 Parameswaran, P. (2019, July 23). “What’s Behind Malaysia’s New South China Sea Missile Launches?” Retrieved August 1, 2019, from https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/whats-behind-malaysias-new-south-china-sea-missile-launches/