Mahathir's China Visit: a Reset or Realignment?

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wrapped up his five-day (August17-21) long trip to People’s Republic of China on Tuesday.

Mahathir's China Visit: a Reset or Realignment?

Mohamad Radytio

This visit is all the more important since other than it’s the longest foreign visit Mahathir has made so far, it adds to the fulfillment of Mahathir's campaign pledges that-among others- find ways to redress what Malay nationalist perceived as unfair and exploitative mega projects signed by previous Najib Razak government with the Chinese. While this pledge has been partly implemented by suspension of some Chinese-backed infrastructural projects, notably in the underdeveloped eastern part of Malaysian Peninsula, his campaign pledge went further by promising that all those projects, would be cancelled if the Chinese side refused to do adjustments that Mahathir think would be in the best interest of native Malay.

Then, what would be the significance of this visit for Chinese-Malay ties be? There are two possibilities; first it would be a complete reset. As Mahathir has said, Chinese investment did little to alleviate Malaysia’s sufferings and bring nothing in a wider national benefit. The ruling coalition of Pakatan Harapan as a whole argues that actually, Malaysia doesn’t need Chinese projects rather Chinese need to erect projects outside of their country. Furthermore, a faction within Pakatan Harapan even argues that actually, Malaysia should refuse any further investment that comes from China. This is because, according to their opinion, China is trying to build a modern colonialism which encompasses the ancient silk road through unprofitable investments which the recipient country(ies) will not be able to repay and thus, these countries will have to pay back something in return. They argued the case of Sri Lanka, where unprofitable projects eventually forced Sri Lankan government to hand over the strategic port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease last December after it could not repay more than US$8 billion in loans from Chinese firms, raising questions about debt traps.

They further argue that, with Mahathir apparently agreed to, that the same would happen in Malaysia. Mahathir sees the projects as not worth the value, considering that the mentioned routes and utilization of the projects would bring way less than $ 25 billion in investment returns even within decades to come. Furthermore, he says, many Chinese laborers were imported from their country to do the projects that can actually be done by native Malay workers. This, he argues, would essentially using Malay money to pay Chinese workers to do things that Malay workers are very much able to do, something that he couldn’t accept. This is yet mentioning corruption and bribery cases around the projects which the new government found unfeasible. Thus, despite the cordial note he stroke before departing to Beijing, if he follows through the things that he said, there would be inevitably a reset in Chinese-Malay ties, especially if the Chinese side refuse to accommodate most of Mahathir’s demands, he would have no choice from altogether abandoning the projects, with ripple effects that may affect the whole Chinese-Malay economic ties.

However, there is the second possible outcome from Mahathir’s visit, which is a realignment.
Researchers from S. Rajaratnam school in Singapore believes that Mahathir would only seek for face-saving measures from the Chinese. This is because, unlike what he is saying, Mahathir in the past was one of the closest Chinese allies in Malaysia. This is all the more profound since, they argue, Mahathir has the tendency to seek friends and allies that can give him a lot of benefits, without seeing their race or nationalities. From this, they argue that Mahathir would understand the importance of Chinese roles in Malaysian economic growth that, if he does a complete reset, the very growth would be reduced significantly.

Eventually, Mahathir would negotiate that watered down each others’ position. He would extract concessions from the Chinese; while at home he may present the concessions given as more than enough to fulfill his pledges so, he would argue, there won’t be necessary for Malaysia to cancel any of the projects. In Beijing, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had asked PM Mahathir if the countries were in agreement about upholding free trade. Dr Mahathir said that free trade should also be fair trade, adding: "We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries."

From what already happened, we knew that it is the first possibility that comes into fruition. The people of Malaysia, tired by previous regime’s corruption and eager to start a new page, support Mahathir’s action to unilaterally cancel all the projects that became a concern and campaign focus of Pakatan Harapan (PH) Coalition. By canceling these projects, Mahathir may indirectly wanted to show to the Pakatan Harapan that when he said that he want change, he mean business. He want to give a signal to not only the Chinese but also to the world that he want a clean break with the past, that he didn’t fear the “big money” or just making promises that he wont keep. He is not just ordinary politicans. That is the signal that Mahathir wanted to give to the world.

As for the consequences, it would create a certain rupture with the Chinese, but judging from their reaction(s), I think it would not give a “sanction” the way the U.S. give Turkey a sanction for “disappearing” from its orbit. This is because, within Malaysia, there are sizable Chinese population who not only would suffer from sizable retribution in the event of such kind of thing happened, but a “sanction” would blown back into the Chinese, as many of Chinese businesses are still at the whim of the Malaysian government, the action(s) of which may or may not threaten those businesses.

Finally, the Chinese may dissipate the negative reaction of these cancellations by reminding Malaysia that they will need each other. But, furthermore, the Chinese need to realize that Mahathir is not just an ordinary politician. He is, after all, a veteran prime minister and leader of Barisan Nasional for 22 years who was able to persuade his former nemesis to support him for a new term as a prime minister at the age of 92, and dared to cut Chinese-led projects within 100 days in power. The Chinese need to realize that there is a new Sheriff in Malaysia.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 03 Eylül 2018, 18:03