Thus, it was not all that surprising that, in the late 2010s, then-Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak came to the defense of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects in Malaysia, after they were criticized for their high costs and poor execution. In fact, he urged even closer ties with China and purchased warships for the Malaysian navy from it. While Najib managed to smooth over most problems dealing with China, he could not avoid them altogether, especially after an investigation of Malaysia’s sovereign-wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), revealed that he had siphoned off money from BRI projects funded by Chinese loans. Tarred by the far-reaching scandal, Najib and his political party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which had won every national election in the last six decades, were swept from office in 2018.
More broadly, the 1MDB scandal raised questions about the motivations behind Malaysia’s policy of accommodation towards China. Such questions have lingered in the background, given that foreign policy decision-making in Malaysia has never been truly transparent. Decisions are generally made within a small coterie of senior officials. Little debate or discussion of policy options occurs in public view. That was certainly the case during the tenures of the last three prime ministers, including Mahathir Mohamad from 1981-2003, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi from 2003-2009, and Najib Razak from 2009-2018. And, by most indications so far, it seems not much will change during Mahathir’s second stint as prime minster today.
Bargaining with a Giant
That may prove disappointing to many Malaysians who voted for Mahathir. After all, his successful bid to oust Najib rode, in large part, on a wave of popular concern over the growth of Chinese influence in Malaysia and fury at Najib’s shading dealings with China through 1MDB. Mahathir had pledged to get to the bottom of those deals. Among them included a project for two pipelines (for which Malaysia had paid a Chinese company nearly 90 percent of the cost, though it had performed less than 15 percent of the work) and another to build the very costly East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) to connect the two coasts of Peninsular Malaysia.
Naturally, cynical Chinese observers concluded from the squabble over the ECRL that Mahathir’s earlier protestations were merely a gambit to strike a better deal. They might be correct. With the ECRL issue settled, Mahathir settled back into Malaysia’s traditional accommodative posture with China. Domestically, he argued that the renegotiated terms for the ECRL were a win for Malaysia. It would benefit from not only a completed (albeit slightly shorter) railway, but also a railway that will cost between 25 and 30 percent less than the originally envisioned one. Moreover, the Chinese company leading the railway’s construction agreed to use mostly Malaysian subcontractors and workers, rather than Chinese ones as most BRI projects do. Of course, China could claim the deal as a win, too. The ERCL, which had become a high-profile test for the international appeal of China’s BRI, would move ahead.
Even so, Mahathir’s economically driven logic has its limits. For example, palm oil is by far Malaysia’s most important agricultural export; and India, not China, is the largest importer of it. Yet, Mahathir has been far more accommodative towards China than India. In October, Mahathir defiantly declared that he would stand by his criticism of India’s treatment of Muslims in Kashmir even if that meant an Indian boycott of Malaysian palm oil. But at the same time, he repeatedly demurred from clear-cut criticism of China’s internment of over a million Muslim Uyghurs (or Uighurs) in Xinjiang. And notably, throughout the negotiations over the ECRL, Mahathir refrained from putting pressure on China by pushing back on its encroachment in the South China Sea.
Even if Malaysian foreign policy decision-making continues to be tightly managed, change could come should politicians with fresh views occupy Malaysia’s top government posts. Already, Anwar has commented that the Malaysian government should take a more assertive role in international affairs. Malaysia’s polity is also changing. Fewer of its citizens are wedded to Malaysia’s long-ruling UMNO. (Indeed, Mahathir, its one-time leader, switched sides.) Over the last two decades, UMNO’s strength has steadily eroded. That could mean more public discussion about Malaysia’s foreign relations, including those with China.
Hence, the clock may be ticking on Malaysia’s placid relations with China. While change could come in many ways, few of them are likely to appeal to Beijing. Malaysians are just as tetchy about their national sovereignty as Filipinos and Vietnamese are. Should Malaysians become more vocal about their concerns and transmit them through their elected leaders, Malaysia’s foreign relations with China could very well veer in a different direction.