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A tempting torch? Malaysia embraces (and leverages on) BRI despite domestic discontent

  • At issue is not whether to ignore a torch, but how to manage and utilize multiple torches to light up national pursuits without burning away core handles.

By Kuik Cheng-Chwee

Malaysia is probably the most receptive among Asean and East Asian nations in embracing China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a new Maritime Silk Road (the "Road") during his maiden Southeast Asian trip in October 2013—weeks after he proposed in Central Asia to build an overland "economic belt" (the "Belt") along the trans-Eurasian Silk Road—Malaysia has gradually emerged as a focus of Beijing's BRI diplomacy. This is in part due to the country's strategic location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and in part Malaysian government's open arms in welcoming China's capital and wider economic role, despite criticism from the opposition and some socioeconomic groups at home.

Malaysia's receptivity is evidenced in three respects. First, in terms of discourse, Malaysian leaders have openly and repeatedly expressed the country's support for the BRI at various national and international occasions, even going along with China's tendency in lumping virtually all major bilateral economic cooperation, including those negotiated and concluded before the rise of Xi, under the BRI framework.

Second, Malaysia's verbal support has translated into concrete developments on ground. Indeed, in a space of few years, Malaysia has forged the broadest range of connectivity cooperation with China in the Asean region. These include rail and port construction, port network, industrial parks, and other new forms of economic projects like digital free trade zone and setting up of regional headquarters by Chinese mega corporations in Malaysia.

These collaborations are functionally broad and geographically dispersed, with construction and operation sites covering multiple key areas of the country, from the east to the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, connecting the southernmost stretches of continental Asia between the two vast strategic oceans. Third, the remarkable scope and speed of these developments are due not only to Beijing's pushes, but also Putrajaya's own pulls.

Indeed, Malaysia-China BRI cooperation is a culmination of bilateral cordiality, geography, power asymmetry, and fundamentally, its ruling elite's choice in leveraging on China's connectivity push for Malaysia's longer term development and immediate interests at different levels, even in the face of growing domestic criticism and pressure.

Some international observers and many quarters in Malaysia have attributed Putrajaya's embrace of BRI to Prime Minister Najib Razak's desperate survival strategy after the 1MDB scandal, especially after news in late 2015 about the purchase by two Chinese state-linked corporations of 1MDB's power assets and property, which substantially reduced the sovereign fund's debts. The widespread perception that the Malaysian leader is now beholden to China leads many to interpret almost everything about Najib's China policy as cynical moves. The leader's visit to China in November 2016, which concluded deals worth U.S.$33 billion, was accused of "selling off" Malaysia to China.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized Najib for allowing China to take over Malaysia's assets and land. The opposition party he led, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, warned Najib's Barisan Nasional government not to compromise Malaysia's security with China's BRI. Perkasa, the Malay rights NGO, cautioned that China's massive investment might affect Malay bumiputra's business opportunities. Perhaps the grass root sentiment about China's growing footprint is best captured by Nurul Izzah Anwar, the Vice President of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, who described China's investments in Malaysia as "too much, too fast, too soon."

Much of these are important facts and valid concerns, but one should not neglect the other equally crucial facts: Malaysia's deep engagement with China started way back in the early 1990s under Mahathir (well before the Najib administration), and Malaysia's efforts to attract more Chinese investment began right after the global financial crisis in 2008–2009 under Abdullah Badawi (well before the 1MDB fiasco). Indeed, Malaysia's embrace of BRI and Chinese capital should be viewed in longer and broader perspectives.

It has always been the Malaysian government's policy to attract foreign investments, from the United States, Europe, Japan, and other Asian economies. As China emerges as a net capital exporter in recent years, many countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere are competing for a bigger slice of China's outflow investment for their own development benefits. This is crucial for Malaysia, particularly at a time when the country is facing the dual challenges of shrinking foreign direct investment inflows and falling oil prices.

Getting and leveraging on the needed capital and technologies to boost Malaysia's connectivity-based development is key to transforming the country's geography and endowments into sustainable growth and strategic activism in the 21st century. At issue is not whether to embrace China's BRI, but how to do so while simultaneously engaging others to ensure a balanced, integrated, and diversified strategy.

OBOR, the acronym of "One-Belt, One-Road"—the original English translated term of China's connectivity-based initiative before it was replaced by BRI—means "torch" in Malay language. Torch can be tempting and potentially harmful. It brings the light, warmth, and fire needed for certain tasks, but it is not without risks, as mismanagement is bound to bring hazardous heat, smoke, Praxis: A Review of Policy Practice 653 and flame flare.

At issue is not whether to ignore a torch, but how to manage and utilize multiple torches in ways that light up national pursuits without burning away one's own core handles. This is perhaps the dictum most policymakers would have in mind in engaging BRI and similar parallel pushes in the century of connectivity.

(Extracted from Regional Perspectives on China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Challenges and Opportunities for the Asia-Pacific, published in Asian Politics & Policy)

(Kuik Cheng-Chwee is an associate professor at the Strategic Studies and International Relations Program at the National University of Malaysia, UKM.)



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