The Domestic Frays in Sino–Malaysian Ties

January 27, 2017

The Domestic Frays in Sino–Malaysian Ties

by  Ngeow Chow Bing, University of Malaya


Image result for China and Malaysia

In the very first week of 2017, two People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels visited the port of Kota Kinabalu, headquarters to Malaysia’s Naval Region Command 2, which oversees the disputed South China Sea waters. The two vessels were identified as CNS Chang Cheng and CNS Chang Xing Dao on the Malaysian Navy’s social media account.

But a Chinese source provided more information about the two vessels. They were identified as Chang Cheng 271, a submarine, and Chang Xing Dao 861, a submarine support ship. Both ships belong to the North Sea Fleet of the PLAN and were returning from a mission in the Gulf of Aden. During their stay at Kota Kinabalu, the vessel’s officers met with the commander and officers of the Naval Region Command 2 and political leaders of Sabah, invited Malaysian sailors on board the Chang Cheng 271 and held a ceremony on the dock of Chang Xing Dao 861.

While there has been a history of PLAN port calls in Malaysia, this was the first PLAN submarine to visit a Malaysian port. But this is not the first time Chang Cheng and Chang Xing Dao have appeared together. Back in 2009, both vessels visited Sri Lanka. Chinese submarine visits to foreign ports are rare (or rarely reported openly) because submarines signify stealth warfare and are much more sensitive and secretive in nature. The visit by CNS Chang Cheng is therefore important in a symbolic sense, signalling that Malaysia has earned China’s trust despite the ongoing South China Sea dispute.

Image result for CNS Chang Cheng

CNS Chang Cheng 271

This CNS Chang Cheng visit, according to the same Chinese source, was mooted during the visit to Malaysia by PLAN Commander Admiral Wu Shengli back in November 2015. The then Malaysian navy chief admiral Abdul Aziz Jaafar proposed that PLAN vessels, including submarines, were welcome to dock at Kota Kinabalu for supply and replenishment, an offer that Admiral Wu accepted.

Two months earlier, three PLAN vessels were in the Straits of Malacca conducting a combined exercise with the Malaysian military. And in November 2016, Malaysia announced that its navy would procure four littoral mission ships from China, the first significant military procurement of its kind between the two countries. The submarine visit is the latest episode not only of intensifying Sino–Malaysian naval cooperation, but also of a burgeoning Sino–Malaysia bilateral relationship. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib reportedly said on several occasions that bilateral ties have hit a ‘historical high’ during his visit to China in October–November 2016.

But the growing Sino–Malaysian ties have come under increasing scrutiny in Malaysia. Ever since two Chinese state-owned enterprises (China General Nuclear Power Corp and China Railway Engineering Corp) stepped in to rescue the debt-ridden 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) — a government-owned development company — in late 2015, Chinese investments in Malaysia have been portrayed by Najib’s opponents as facilitating the political survival of Najib and the ruling regime.

Image result for Najib in ChinaNajib Razak to President Xi of China–Lu Tolong Gua, Gua Tolong Lu

Najib’s 2016 visit to China, for example, brought back 14 commercial agreements amounting to more than 144 billion Malaysian ringgit (about US$33 billion). But Najib soon found himself needing to defend his China policy against critics who accused him of selling out the country to China. More recently, two heavyweight leaders of the newest Malay-based opposition party Bersatu — former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin — also spoke out against Chinese investment as benefiting only Najib and his government and not the Malaysian people. Their criticisms drew a swift rebuke from the Chinese embassy in Malaysia.

These are signs that Sino–Malaysia relations can no longer be insulated from domestic politics in Malaysia. In past elections, the country’s foreign relations were not a major campaign issue. In fact, when the ‘China card’ has been played previously, it was always a ‘positive China card’, whereby the ruling coalition used a good relationship with China to draw support from ethnic Chinese voters. In the upcoming election there is a good chance that the ‘China card’ may be played negatively for the first time, especially by opposition parties such as Bersatu who seek to arouse dissatisfaction among rural Malay voters.

Image result for Najib in China

China also faces a dilemma. When Najib approached China for more investment, China saw this as a good opportunity to cement a relationship with a key Southeast Asian country. But China is also being criticised for investing too much into the relationship with Najib and his allies, to the extent that the Sino–Malaysia relationship now seems to be based on, and driven by, Najib’s personal agenda. Any threat to the prime ministership of Najib could therefore become a threat to Sino–Malaysian ties. There is a real risk that Chinese investment projects could be suspended or delayed if Najib is forced out of power or if the opposition wins.

To avoid this, China cannot simply dismiss concerns pointed out by critics of its investments and must be transparent in its economic dealings with Malaysia.

Ngeow Chow Bing is Deputy Director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya.

15 thoughts on “The Domestic Frays in Sino–Malaysian Ties

  1. Chinese government being helpful..but beware of Najip..oObama had been trick by this crook too..China investment in small country like Malaysia is to tell the whole world that they know how to deal with thugs..whether from Africa or Asia..they are not scared..coz they have face thugs for hundredths of years. .this is not new to them.

  2. In the 70s Japan gave very low interest Yen Loans to the Third World. I remember Pakistan got a good share. Then the Yen doubled in value and all the interesr rate gains were lost.

  3. @hashim I must admit I know nothing. But one of the nothing I do know is that the CCP Chinese elites care little about the Melayu. They are not being helpful to Malaysia with their investment. They are just helping themselves. Do you find need or particular fondness for any of the investment going to be built by new pendatang?

    As for this, …

    // There is a real risk that Chinese investment projects could be suspended or delayed if Najib is forced out of power or if the opposition wins.

    Not true. The above statement is one way for Dr Ngeow to cari-makan in current political environment. But I don’t see if that is a possibility even if the opposition were to win. China’s OBOR will continue, as long as CCP rules China.

    As for the American elites … many are preparing for the worst.
    Tun M wrote about kiamat in his blog last year also.

    The rest of us just continue to layu-layu with the Melayu this Chinese New Year.

  4. @hashim: this pendatang does think this generation of Melayu deserves the uncaring treatment by the CCP elites. After all, is there one Melayu whom you personally know who actually care about China and the Chinese inside and outside of China, beyond their wealth or their affordable ‘sisters’?

  5. Malaysia shouldn’t worry too much if the investment comes from rich Chinese or Private Chinese corporations. However most of the big investments are made by Chinese State owned corporations. Thus the lines between trade and politics become somewhat blurred. Question is when conflicts crop up will it be settled in a mercantile setting or will it involve sovereign intervention.

  6. China has often taken a bad rap or bum rap from some people of the countries they invested in. The Chinese were invited by the governments of these countries to invest there, but some people, with their own political agenda, are accusing the Chinese of buying out their countries, and soon those “goddamn communists” will overwhelm into to own their countries.

    Take Detroit for example. The city had been deteriorating for years and years, the state of Michigan couldn’t bail them out and the federal government simply didn’t care or unable to help them out. So the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18, 2013. The Mayor of Detroit and the Governor of Michigan went to China to “beg” for investment, and China responded kindly and generously. Detroit is saved. Yet you hear many opposition voices, like what is going on in Malaysia today, questioning the “malicious intents” of the “commies.” If China didn’t respond kindly, I believe the same people would come up with many other excuses to bash China for not behaving like a major country.

    To the Chinese, I believe, business is business. They are more capitalistic than America who claims to be the champion of capitalism. Commie this and commie that reflects the ignorance, folly, shallowness and puerile ego of an inferior man.

    If Trump declares a trade war with China, I believe he is doomed to fail. The reason is simple: too many states depend on China in trade. Trump will not get the support from the Governors of these states. Gerry Brown, Governor of California, already told Trump to go fly a kite. Most people don’t understand that, in America, state autonomy limits on federal power prevent the federal government from interfering with decisions made by the state on its basic governmental operations. The Governor of a state is not appointed by the President but elected by the people of the state. He answers to the people of his/hers state, not to the President.

  7. With regards to LaMoy’s point about China and Detroit – not sure about the begging aspect – but I do know that the Chinese are buying up property in Detroit . This has more to do with rich Chinese accumulating offshore asset with the intention of fleeing the coup then any neocolonialist tendencies of the CPC.

    While I am no China cheerleader and have posted pieces critical of China’s so called aid/investments I do think there is a bias towards anything the PRC does in terms of economics and territorial integrity.

    Esp in developing countries with corrupt leaderships, there is a tendency to use the PRC when convenient then raise the yellow peril flag when it becomes politically expedient to do so.

    • Conrad:
      Good observations, my young friend. I was exaggerating when I said “beg” for investment. That’s why I put the word in quotation marks. The fact is: The mayor and the governor did go to China to ask for investment. The fact is: China did respond favorably. The fact is: Detroit is saved. And the fact is: There are many dissenting voices in Detroit. I just wonder: If the investment came from, say, England or Australia, will there be any of these dissenting voices?

  8. For Sustainability ,
    Mutual Stand between China and Malaysia of Umnob Government should be based fundatmentally on :

    #Cash Against Delivery – CAD
    #Shared Benefit and of Responsibility- SaBoR.

  9. … avoid misunderstandings and minimize frays, which bound to happen because there are always political leaders who would play up issues—race, socio-economic, political or otherwise in advancing self-interests for greed, power and monetary gains.

  10. @LaMoy: I would agree on Detroit’s case. But, for Malaysia’s case, circumstances isn’t so clear cut.

    I do want to be wrong in Malaysia’s case. Economist did a recent piece on Cambodia and China two weeks ago. Cambodia and China’s relationship is definitely different. But, that is exactly the point. Detroit’s case and Malaysia’s case could be different.

    • katasayang:
      You’re entitled to what you want to believe in your layu-layu mind. If you believe there is a difference than there is a difference to you. I see China is pretty adamant and consistent in their declaration of not interfering into other countries internal affairs. To them business is business and they separate business from politics. That’s why even though they are so tense in politics with Japan and still become the number one trading partner of Japan. But I am not saying their business deals are always completely void of political and strategic considerations. China does what is best for China. And so is every other country. No one will invest into a project that gets no return.

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