18 January 2019
The approval ratings of the scandal-ridden Malaysian leader Najib Razak have continued to decline over the past two years. Photo: Reuters
The approval ratings of the scandal-ridden Malaysian leader Najib Razak have continued to decline over the past two years. Photo: Reuters

Malaysia and China playing diplomatic footsie with each other

With Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte adjusting his country’s long-standing “lean-to-one-side” policy towards the United States and trying to repair relations with China, it appears Malaysia is also seeking to strengthen ties with China as well.

Recently Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak paid a state visit to Beijing, and concluded numerous business and economic deals worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

These deals include China’s huge investments in several new coastal ports in Malaysia, and Kuala Lumpur’s purchase of four Chinese-made naval vessels.

The reason Najib appeared desperate to seek China’s investment and closer partnership is rather simple: the approval ratings of the scandal-ridden Malaysian leader have continued to decline over the past two years.

With the next general election just three months away, Najib is badly in need of huge foreign investments to boost his country’s economy so as to get back in favor with local voters and win another term.

Apart from domestic concerns, another reason Malaysia is seeking closer ties with China is because incoming US President Donald Trump is widely expected to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), thereby adding a lot of variables to the economic prospects of the region.

In order to hedge its bets, Kuala Lumpur needs to jump on the bandwagon of seeking closer economic partnership with Beijing.

Over the years, almost all Southeast Asian countries have been adopting a hedging strategy to maximize their diplomatic and economic gains amid intense US-China rivalry for regional leadership, and Malaysia is no exception.

Perhaps the only people in Malaysia that are against closer ties with Beijing are the opposition alliance, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

The PR had criticized Najib for trying to cut juicy deals with China in order to serve his own political purposes even before he set foot in Beijing.

However, the alliance refrained from mounting a large-scale public campaign against Najib’s visit to Beijing for fear of alienating ethnic-Chinese voters in Malaysia, the PR’s major support base.

In the meantime, Beijing is not placing all its bets on Najib either. While it is welcoming Najib with open arms, Beijing is also closely in touch with former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and the PR, in an apparent effort to hedge its bets in the upcoming Malaysian general election.

As it remains rather unclear as to how US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region may change under the Trump administration, it is therefore expected that the hedging strategy will continue to remain a dominating theme among Southeast Asian countries when it comes to dealing with both the US and China at least in the short run.

At the end of the day, major Southeast Asian countries have remained firm believers in pragmatism when it comes to foreign policies.

Therefore, one should not be surprised by the recent stampede among Southeast Asian countries to strengthen ties with Beijing, because after all it is just another skillful demonstration of the long-standing “hedge diplomacy” that has remained the guiding principle for Southeast Asian leaders for decades.

Yet perhaps the only surprise is Singapore, which has proven the master in navigating between the US and China without fully committing itself to either in the past, but which has ended up in the doghouse with Beijing recently due to its high-profile pro-Washington stance after the death of Lee Kuan Yew.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 23.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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