Malaysian Prime Minister’s Visit: How to cut a better deal with China

July 25, 2018

Malaysian Prime Minister’s Visit: How to cut a better deal with China

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is pushing back against China’s dominance in the economy, stalling billions of dollars of contracts as he tries to renegotiate them.

He’s heading to China in August — specific dates haven’t been disclosed yet — to discuss those projects and try to win deals that he says should be more favorable to Malaysia.

China has $34 billion worth of infrastructure projects underway in Malaysia negotiated by the previous government of ousted leader Najib Razak, deals that Mahathir said favored Chinese investors over the Malaysian economy. Among his concerns are the large sums that the government has borrowed from China and contractors that use Chinese labor and equipment.

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Earlier this month, Malaysia’s government suspended the East Coast Rail Link, which was being built by China Communications Construction Co. with an estimated price tag of 81 billion ringgit ($20 billion). Two energy pipeline projects were also stalled.

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Mahathir’s move comes against the backdrop of growing disquiet in Southeast Asia about China’s spreading influence in the region. China’s multi-billion dollar Belt & Road Initiative to build roads, railways and ports is stoking fears of ballooning debt in poor countries like Myanmar and Laos. China’s actions in the South China Sea are also a source of tension.

‘Nationalistic Stance’

Malaysia has been one of the region’s biggest beneficiaries of Chinese investment in the 15 years between Mahathir’s first and latest stint as leader, while economic links in the two countries from trade to tourism have strengthened.

“We expect some negative impact on future Chinese-related investments in Malaysia due to PM Mahathir’s nationalistic stance with regard to investment,” said Chua Han Teng, head of Asia Pacific country risk at BMI Research.

“However, we expect a compromise to mitigate the effect, with Malaysia unwilling to antagonize an important trade partner and China likely to prioritize its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, of which projects in Malaysia are a key part,” he said.

Here’s a look at how China’s economic links with Malaysia have evolved in recent years:

1. Trade

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China-Malaysia twin industrial parks are set to boost investment and cooperation between the two countries as well as in the region under China-proposed Belt and Road initiative.

Malaysia is China’s biggest trading partner in Southeast Asia after Vietnam, with total trade of $92.4 billion last year. In 2003, when Mahathir ended his first period as Prime Minister, the figure was less than a quarter of that.

Malaysia is one of the few economies in Southeast Asia to run a trade surplus with China, exporting everything from electronics and palm oil to liquefied petroleum gas. Last year, Malaysia exported $54.4 billion to China, or about 18 percent of its total shipments. In 2003, that figure was just $14 billion.

Malaysia imports electrical products, machinery and equipment from China.China has been Malaysia’s biggest trade partner since 2009

2. Investment

Official data shows Chinese foreign direct investment into Malaysia surged more than 700 percent in the past decade to 9.9 billion ringgit last year, a far bigger increase than any other source country.

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Chinese FDI inflows into Malaysia have surged in recent years. The inflow has raised concerns among Malaysians over sovereignty, indebtedness and the risk of creating white elephant projects.

“Both Dr Mahathir and the China side look at the definitions of investments from their own experience and perspective and therefore differently,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior adviser for international affairs at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute in Kuala Lumpur. “It is important for both sides to iron out their difference in preferences and expectations.”

3. Tourism

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Chinese tourists are now the third-largest group of visitors to Malaysia after Singaporeans and Indonesians, lured by sandy beaches, a shared culture in a country where a quarter of the population are ethnically Chinese, and a love of the pungent durian fruits.

That growth has underpinned a tourism industry that now makes up about 15 percent of gross domestic product. Total tourism receipts in Malaysia climbed 54 percent in the past decade to 82.1 billion ringgit in 2017.

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Chinese tourist arrivals to Malaysia rose 7.4% y/y to 2.28m last year (2017)

4. Immigration

Chinese nationals were the largest group of participants in the state-run Malaysia My Second Home program, an international residency plan allowing wealthy foreigners to live in the Southeast Asian nation on a long-stay visa. Chinese citizens accounted for almost 30 percent of successful applicants since the program was launched in 2002.

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5. Property

The increase in Chinese migration has helped underpin property demand in Malaysia, especially in the southern city of Johor Bahru, which borders Singapore, and in Penang and Melaka states, according to Knight Frank LLP consultants.

For Chinese investors, Malaysia is a cheaper alternative to real-estate markets in Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. What also counts in Malaysia’s favor is a lower entry cost for property and cultural ties that make food and language familiar to Chinese buyers.

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China’s Xiamen University Campus in Malaysia

China’s Xiamen University also became the first one in the country to open an overseas campus, which was set up outside of Kuala Lumpur with the aim of boosting ties between Chinese and Malaysian students and academics.

— With assistance by Molly Dai

12 thoughts on “Malaysian Prime Minister’s Visit: How to cut a better deal with China

  1. China used to be the aggrieved party in unequal treaties. Now China is the architect of unequal agreements with Malaysia and other victims.

    • China’s was at the receiving end of unequal treaties with foreign powers imposing those treaties by gunboats. I wonder how China forced Malaysia to enter into unequal treaties? Maybe due to 1 Monkey Dirty Business?

    • During the Japanese occupation of Malaya, it was the Malayan Nationalists in the form of the Malayan People’s Anti- Japanese Army, who fought to liberate the country from Japanese Imperialism. When the sovereign integrity of the nation is threatened by whichever external power, under whatever guise, the nationalist Malaysians of the diverse races will fight the threat to restore our dignity and sovereignty integrity. When the kleptocratic DSNR regime sell out the country for the own selfish ends, the Malaysian nationalist with go against the foreign power, be it China, Russia, USA or Britain. We should count ourselves as Malaysians to defend the interest of Malaysia. I think foreigner still write without understanding this Malaysian aspiration which led to the PH victory in GE14.

  2. I wonder how many Malaysians under 60 year old know about the history of Xiamen University, and its’ symbolic meaning. Without ability to put this into context, we will just get things messier.
    Pooi Koon Chong, the author of this Bloomberg news just doesn’t understand. We have ourselves to blame for a closed minded education system. I just realize Malaysians under the age 30 year old might not even have learned about Reid and Cobbald Commission.

    • Ballooning debt is a global issue. I suspect China is more than willing to find a sustainable solution as Premier Xi clearly knows the imbalances caused by debt. BRI itself carries the notion China could share her extra capacity to surrounding nation for mutual benefit.
      Debt is never an issue when it is used to build meaningful projects.

      Xiamen University is funded solely by a Malaysian tycoon during China’s most challenging time. Its’ opening carries such a meaningful discussion to both nations. Malaysians have ourselves to blame when we stick onto a “Us vs Them” mentality. Opening up the Reid Commission would help build an unique Roadmap that the world would truly appreciate.

    • @The, you are right. Or perhaps, we are both wrong and right. The link suggested he died on 1961 in Beijing. He probably holds a British Colony passport, and/or a PRC passport? Perhaps, some historian could find out he has ever hold a Malaysian passport.
      Whatever it is, my generation of Melayu is forever stucked in believing in a fantasy that Taukeh Cina is out there to siphon money out, without realizing there is no Taukeh in the hearts of these taukeh. It is just about thankful for being alive, and simple commitment to humanism, as in Tan Kah Ki’s case and his commitment in Xiamen University. I am glad Robert Kuok could change the perception. I hope Tun Dr could crafts different path out for the current path of Welayu. For the very least, if this current generation of Melayu wants to find some mythical name to hate, let him have a name.

  3. Katasayang – Tan Kah Kee was domiciled in Singapore for many years. He founded many top Chinese schools in Singapore. He was from Xiamen, and many Singapore Teochews and Hokkiens are also from Amoy. He’s too much of a Sinophile for LKY’s liking who had a love-hate relationship with him. LKY probably viewed his as a Chinese chauvinist. That’s why in his later years, TKK went back to his home town to do charity work and set up the university there. Like most first-generation Singaporeans, most tried to go back to China to die there. There’s a MRT station named after him in Singapore, near Hwa Chong High School, which was also founded by him.

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