Long before the Federation of Malaya gained independence from the British Empire in 1957, the territories comprising modern Malaysia had a long, fruitful and peaceful relationship with multiple Chinese states. In keeping with China’s friendly trading ties with the majority of south east Asian sovereign entities throughout the centuries, Malaysia’s predecessor states enjoyed cordial relations with China on the basis of mutually beneficial trade.
In the early 15th century, the Malacca Sultanate which included Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and a portion of Sumatra in modern Indonesia, signed an important security pact with China’s Ming Dynasty. According to the protection agreement, the Ming provided full military protection to the Malacca Sultanate. During Portugal’s invasion of Malacca in the early 16th century, it was Ming forces that fought against the European colonial power and for a time succeeded in holding off the first of many European subjugations of the territories that would become Malaysia.
Today, Malaysia’s veteran Prime Minister, the 93 year old Mahathir Mohamad spoke of this long history of friendship with China and explained how this forms the basis of warm relations in 2019. Mahathir stated:
“They asked me, how do you feel about China? I told them Malaysia has been maintaining ties with China. We have bilateral trade and we have been friendly to China”.
“There are many Chinese in our country, but China has never colonised us. Who should we be fearful of? China or Europe?
Many Chinese nationals know me. They see me as China’s good friend”.
The Malaysian Prime Minister then turned to an issue of contemporary China-Malaysia cooperation that has been widely misrepresented ever since Mahathir returned to a leadership position in 2018. About these matters, he stated:
“Just because the Malaysian government asked to review the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and cancel the Sabah and Malacca natural gas pipe project, then I am seen as unfriendly?
The Chinese government is aware that we are facing serious financial issues. I told them that we can’t afford (those projects). This is not whether we want it or not. These are bad projects in the first place and we can’t afford them”.
It is well known that the ECRL (which is set to go forward but on a smaller and more manageable scale) was one of the many bloated vanity projects instigated by Mahathir’s notoriously corrupt predecessor Najib Razak. In cancelling the ECRL as initially conceived along with the gas projects in Sabah and Malacca, Mahathir was showing no malice towards China, but was instead trying to reign in the fiscally irresponsible policies of Najib. This became especially important as global financial trends exerted pressure on many emerging markets throughout 2018.
While projects in which China participates are always aimed at creating win-win outcomes for all partners, it is also true that China approaches its partners not with a patronising colonial style suspicion, but from a businesslike position of mutual respect. Therefore, if a partner nation of China seeks to use Chinese expertise to build something extravagant, it is not China’s duty to meddle in the sovereign decision making processes of another nation. It is likewise not China’s business to police corruption outside of China’s borders. That is of course the job of individual nations and this is what Mahathir’s coalition was elected to do for Malaysia.
Beyond this is the dangerous and defamatory “debt trap” myth regarding Belt and Road connectivity projects. Mahathir’s statement likewise dispels this myth by explaining that the decisions his government took in respect of ECRL and the gas projects were internal responses to the poor foresight of the previous government, as well as being more holistic responses to overall geo-economic trends.
The “debt-trap” myth is flawed not only in terms of the fact that it is based on exceptions which prove the rule that most Chinese projects throughout Asia and Africa result in win-win outcomes for both parties, but the myth is also flawed in the sense that it fails to grasp real world realities beyond the ideological and purely theoretical. In life like in geopolitics there is no such thing as a free lunch. While China is more generous in terms of loans, investments and cash injections than most other wealthy nations, it is not in any nation’s interest to rebuild entire continents without getting anything in return.
In this sense, China is engaging in normal business practices that are international standards when it comes to expecting to be paid back on loans that it readily gives to nations aspiring to further develop their economies and infrastructure and does so at levels that are history making in terms of their forward thinking generosity. Of course, instead of offering loans and other investment schemes or otherwise giving away money for free, China could simply come to a foreign state, build infrastructure and keep 100% of the profits from such projects forever more. This however would totally exclude China’s partner nations from the project and would amount to little more than soft imperialism.
Instead, China seeks to cultivate win-win partnerships by including the partner nation in question at all stages of a joint project. In this sense, China is willing to share the benefits and the responsibilities as is normal in a genuine partnership of any kind. Implicit in such relationships is the reality that every now and then one side will negate some of its responsibilities. In the over-hyped case of Sri Lanka, the government simply bit off more than it could chew and in agreeing to take over Hambantota port, Beijing actually saved Colombo both money and grief.
While Sri Lanka clearly did not think ahead before signing the final agreements regarding Hambantota, the fact is that the port is there and being run by Chinese operations means that it is nevertheless still bringing added value to the Sri Lankan economy. Even if for example China took operational control/ownership of Zambia’s international airport (as totally false rumours claimed in 2018), China would still be working towards making Zambia’s airport more functional and attractive. It goes without saying that having a functional and attractive airport brings added value to any economy irrespective of who owns the airport. This is for example true of England’s Heathrow airport which is operated by a company originating in Spain.
The fact of the matter is whether a Chinese project in a foreign nation goes well (as such things typically do) or whether they require some sort of reassessment as many kinds of projects throughout the world do, China is always blamed by those sowing Sinophobic narratives when in reality China is engaging in normal business practices yet tends to be hated by those infected with a zero-sum mentality because China tends to have a larger success record in foreign infrastructure projects than do rivals including the US and India.
Another problem that arises is that when nations take a step back from deals with China to reconsider – something Sri Lanka clearly did not do though it very well could have done – China absolutely gets the blame here too from those who see the world through a zero-sum prism. When Mahathir Mohamad looked to suspend some of the vanity projects that his corrupt predecessor Najib Razak agreed to begin building with Chinese companies, he was, according to some hyper-Sinophobic media outlets “Standing up to China”. In reality he was simply revising business deals the way the new head of a private company would do so with a partner company after taking over from a failed predecessor. There was no anti-China malice in Mahathir’s revisions of deals – just normal business practices. This has now been explicitly clarified by Mahathir.
When understood holistically, it becomes clear that Sinophobic governments and media outlets tend to blame China no matter what it does, even when Beijing works to secure bespoke deals on a win-win model with any willing and able partner. The fact that China requires partners to exercise joint responsibility in exchange for sharing in the joint success of a project is in fact the opposite of exploitation – it is geo-economic empowerment. Ironically, those who criticise China the most are those whose records of partnerships with developing nations have been the most historically scandalous.
Of course, Malaysia still has many internal issues to address in respect of affirmative action policies which discriminate against the country’s Han Chinese minority, but this issue which is central to the internal development of Malaysia must not be conflated with Malaysia’s trading relations with the People’s Republic of China.
In this sense, Mahathir has offered an unequivocal reassurance that healthy trading relations between the people of Malaysia and China will continue, just as they had done for centuries prior to the reckless imperialist conquests of Malaysia by Portugal, The Netherlands and finally the Britain.