Since returning to the Premiership in May of this year, the ninety-three year old Mahathir Mohamad has been portrayed by some as enacting anti-Beijing policies due to the fact that his coalition government has reviewed investment contracts with China across multiple sectors worth billions of Dollars that were signed under the leadership of his predecessor Najib Razak. Mahathir’s campaign vowed to prosecute Najib for multiple accusations of corruption and on 3 July, Najib was in fact arrested and later indicted in the High Court in Kuala Lumpur for abuse of power and criminal breach of trust.
Against this background, it is clear that Mahathir’s statements regarding contracts signed with China under Najib’s controversial premiership are related more to domestic politics than an anti-Chinese policy on behalf of the new historic multiracial government in Malaysia. This hasn’t stopped speculation and fear-mongering that somehow Mahathir is pivoting his nation away from a healthy relationship with Beijing. In reality, Mahathir’s proven record on cherishing multipolarity in his country’s future economic development means that he is merely looking to re-work the arrangements made under his discredited predecessor and instead move into a new era with all of Malaysia’s key partners including China.
It was this atmosphere of cooperation under the guise of a fresh start that highlighted Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Kuala Lumpur. During the meeting the Malaysian Prime Minister expressed his desire to maintain and enhance positive ties with China while also offering an endorsement of the One Belt–One Road initiative. As reported by Xhinua,
“The 93-year-old Malaysian leader also said he is looking forward to visiting China soon to demonstrate his administration’s resolve to push forward with Sino-Malaysian relations, and learn from the experience of China’s development.
Mahathir recalled the great Chinese navigator Zheng He’s visits to Malaysia. During China’s Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century), Zheng led his fleet to come to Malacca for five times on his seven sea voyages.
Zheng’s fleet at that time brought friendship and cooperation abroad while today’s China is working hard to make contributions to regional prosperity, said the prime minister.
He reiterated his support for China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, saying it is a great opportunity for the region to realize common development and prosperity.
Mahathir also expressed his hope that Chinese enterprises, especially high-tech firms can increase their investment in Malaysia”.
Wang Yi responded by reminding younger observers that it was during Mahathir’s first premiership in the 1980s that Sino-Malaysian ties began to flourish at unprecedented levels leading to accelerated growth in both nations. The Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister further said, “With the establishment of a new Malaysian government, Sino-Malaysian relations now stand at a new starting point. China is ready to enhance high-level exchanges between the two governments and lay out a blueprint for the development of future relations“. Wang added that, “the joint efforts of China and Malaysia, as natural partners in undertaking the initiative, will open up even greater prospects for cooperation between the two countries and contribute to common development“.
“China attaches high importance to its relations with Malaysia. The reason… is that Malaysia and China are developing countries – we both follow independent policy, we both believe in Asian values, and we both oppose all forms of power politics… In other words, common interests”.
The meeting between Wang and top Malaysian officials including the Prime Minister ought to assure market watchers and geopolitical observers that no rift in healthy bilateral relations between the two nations has developed since the new Malaysian coalition took office in May. Instead, the changes to Sino-Malaysian contracts signed during the previous government in Kuala Lumpur are best described as an outgrowth of Premier Mahathir’s desire to drastically reform Malaysia’s internal business culture. As part of this the re-arranging of deals with foreign partners is a natural outgrowth of such a domestic push.
Chinese officials can clearly relate to Mahathir’s anti-corruption drive as Chinese President Xi has embarked on an historic drive of his own to clean up all levels of politics and business. The result of these parallel processes will undoubtedly be a new healthier era in relations between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur build on trust, transparency and the win-win model of cooperation. Both sides look to discuss further joint initiatives when Mahathir visits China later this summer.