After a historic 2018 election victory, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad and his Pakatan Harapan coalition seemed to be rolling back Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) deals forged under his predecessor Najib Razak. Mahathir suspended the mostly China-financed US$20 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and several similar smaller projects. Foreign pundits quickly lauded Malaysia’s apparent pushback against China’s BRI. Ngeow Chow Bing specially for the East Asia Forum.
But 2019 proved to be a ‘turnaround’ year. In April, Malaysia announced that the ECRL was back on track. A few days later, the revival of Bandar Malaysia — a project suspended by the Najib government — was also announced. This followed negotiations that shaped the projects to be more in-line with the Pakatan government’s economic agenda. Mahathir also welcomed Chinese technology giant Huawei to construct Malaysia’s 5G telecommunications network.
Mahathir also attended the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2019 and provided strong rhetorical support. A flurry of diplomatic visits followed. Malaysian ministers and deputy ministers reportedly visited China about 30 times in 2019, while more than 50 Chinese delegations at vice-ministerial level or above visited Malaysia, underscoring a deep and comprehensive level of exchanges between both countries.
But two issues have the potential to derail the relationship.
One is the South China Sea. In September 2019, a visit by Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah to China reportedly resulted in an agreement that a bilateral consultative mechanism — modelled on a similar format between the Philippines and China — would be established. China had been encouraging Malaysia to agree to such a mechanism, and the reported agreement came as a Chinese diplomatic gain.
But there are also signs that Malaysia could be taking a more assertive stand — likely prompted by the increasingly alarming presence of Chinese vessels in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.
Following other claimant states, Malaysia banned the animated movie Abominable from Malaysian cinemas because of a scene depicting China’s ‘nine-dash’ line claim. In December 2019, Malaysia submitted its continental shelf claim in the disputed South China Sea area to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf — a move that China immediately objected to. Saifuddin, despite his friendliness towards China, has openly ridiculed China’s claims in the South China Sea. In the first ever Defence White Paper released by the Ministry of Defence, Chinese actions in the South China Sea were described as ‘aggressive’.
The second issue concerns the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang. Despite the improvement in bilateral relations with China in 2019, China’s image is suffering a decline — especially among the Malay–Muslim majority.
This decline is partially fuelled by social media fake news, but it is also due to genuine anger over reported human rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Demonstrations organised by Muslim NGOs are often held outside the Chinese Embassy asking China to ‘stop persecuting Uyghurs’. While China has tried various means to present a counter-narrative — such as inviting Malaysian NGOs, officials, journalists and politicians to tour Xinjiang and publishing op-eds in mainstream newspapers — they have not been very effective.
This issue is tricky for the Malaysian government. Having only around one-third of the Malay–Muslim votes in the last elections, leaders of the Pakatan coalition are keenly aware of their deficit in ‘Islamic credentials’. Their ‘New Malaysia’ brand also supposedly points towards a foreign policy that emphasises human rights and democracy. Mahathir also sees himself as a leader who speaks up for the oppressed Muslims around the world — the Palestinians, the Bosnians, the Rohingya — but on the Xinjiang issue, he admitted that China was too powerful and any action by Malaysia would likely be futile.
Nevertheless, it should also be noted that although the government is concerned about developments in Xinjiang, it has not yet determined how serious the situation is there. Rather than openly condemning China, the government opts to take discreet actions and a ‘moderate’ approach. Criticism of China has come not just from NGOs and opposition parties, but also from members of the Pakatan coalition, while high-level government officials have privately met with prominent Uyghur activists.
The government has stopped repatriating Uyghurs back to China and Uyghurs living in Malaysia are allowed to stay as long as they wish — on the condition that they do not openly campaign against China on Malaysian soil. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has appointed the International Islamic University of Malaysia to undertake a comprehensive study of the Xinjiang issue.
In years to come, the South China Sea and Xinjiang issues are likely to complicate an otherwise robust bilateral relationship founded on strong economic and people-to-people exchanges. Of the two, the South China Sea dispute generates less public discussion but is likely to be more long-lasting as it involves a complex dispute of sovereignty and rights over maritime resources.
The Xinjiang issue evokes emotions and could be used by both major opposition parties (the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)) to attack the Pakatan coalition. But while PAS is more outspoken on the Xinjiang issue, UMNO is handicapped in the sense that its leaders kept silent and acquiesced to some of China’s demands for repatriating Uyghurs when they were in power. UMNO is also mindful that if it manages to win the next elections, it would have to face the same conundrum vis-a-vis China’s response. So there is a limit to how much current opposition leaders wish to politicise the issue.
The United States is now citing these issues as justification for its more confrontational policy against China. But despite Malaysia’s unhappiness about Chinese actions in the South China Sea and Xinjiang, the government is wary that these issues may be leveraged by either of the two superpowers. Malaysia still believes in a non-aligned policy and does not wish to be caught in the unfolding US–China rivalry.
With the resignation of Prime Minister Mahathir and the political uncertainties ahead, there are still more questions about the development of relations between China and Malaysia.
Ngeow Chow Bing is Director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya.