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(August 28, 2018) KL-Beijing ties and the 'Mahathir doctrine' - Kavi Chongkittavorn

Be careful what you say these days, especially when it comes to comments about Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, also known as Tun Mahathir, or Tun Ma by Chinese-language dailies in Malaysia, and his five-day visit to China. One can take what one hears literally at one's own risk.

His visit has been the talk of the town here in Kuala Lumpur since his return last week, eliciting all kinds of reactions. The overall sentiment was mixed at best. After all, Tun Mahathir has long been known for his brinksmanship.

Obviously, negative comments about his trip emanated from his predecessor former prime minister Najib Razak and his cabinet officials. They ridiculed Tun Mahathir's approach, arguing that he should not do away the government's huge contracts with China because its credibility is at stake. It would discourage future foreign investment because the government lacks good faith.

Once Dr Mahathir became prime minister the second time over 100 days ago, he pledged to reconsider and halt some of mega-infrastructure projects. Since then, he has picked three multi-billion dollars projects -- the East Coast Rail Link, the Multi-Product Pipeline and the Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline. This much is clear. Mr Najib supporters viewed Tun Mahathir as an "anti-Chinese" leader. But the truth is different. Sure enough, it is not an alternative truth. The latest news is Malaysia has not yet cancelled the projects, the government is reviewing them.

Judging from the detailed news coverage and comments by two key Chinese-language dailies, Sin Chew Daily and Nanyang Siang Pau, their reactions were positive, praising Tun Mahathir's success in explaining to the Chinese leaders the country's concern over the economic burden his government has to deal with. Though Malaysia is one of the richer countries in Asean, it might not have enough finances to pay for all these expensive projects. Malaysian experts on China viewed the outcome differently and gave the thumb-ups to Tun Mahathir's historic visit. The fact that he secured meetings with the top Chinese leaders during the Beidaihe summer meeting was an indicator of the seriousness China attached to their guest.

Ngeow Chow Bing of the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaysia, was candid, saying China went along with Tun Mahathir's request for a further review of the three controversial projects. Mr Ngeow said given current circumstances with its trade with the US, China needs friends. Tun Mahathir, he pointed out, knows China very well, as he was the leader who initiated the economic bloc known as the East Asia Economic Caucus in the early 1990s, which was blocked by the US. However, after nearly three decades, this idea is still alive and well under different guises.

Kuik Cheng Chwee of the National University of Malaysia was succinct, saying reviewing projects is not necessarily revoking them. Tun Mahathir, he added, wanted to correct the terms of agreement to reduce the financial burden and to make those projects more favourable, transparent and sustainable.

The two leading Chinese experts agreed that Tun Mahathir is trying to recalibrate Malaysia's policy toward China. Recognising Tun Mahathir's seniority and experience as prime minister, the Chinese leaders were willing to listen patiently. Indeed, during the press conference wrapping up his visit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Tun Mahathir was blunt, warning China about pursuing "a new version of colonialism" in its relations with poor countries that are unable to compete with rich countries in terms of just, open, and free trade. His comments caused surprise and raised eyebrows both at home and in Beijing.

On closer scrutiny, Tun Mahathir clearly showed a very strategic approach to China during his trip. Ahead of his meeting with the top Chinese leaders, he visited the headquarters of Alibaba in Hangzhou and Geely Holding Group in Zhejiang. Both will play pivotal roles in Malaysia's future in economic digitalisation and transforming the regional car manufacturer into a global player. After all, the latter is the majority shareholder of Tun Mahathir's brainchild, the Proton Saga. The Chinese automaker plans to v produce electric cars for export.

Well-known analyst Kim Beng Phar says Tun Mahathir has a long history of saying "no" to foreign countries, either the US, Australia, Europe or China, to protect national interests. However, he said, by speaking frankly with Chinese leaders, Tun Mahathir has enabled both countries to deal with each other transparently and respectfully. This confidence-building is important to prevent any alienation towards China's soft loans and investment to the Najib government to back up numerous infrastructure projects in Malaysia. "They have led to corruption and cronyism," he said.

All things considered, Tun Mahathir's visit has provided a new impetus for Malaysia-China relations, which are considered the pillar of the latter's new foreign relations with Southeast Asia, focusing on neighbouring countries. Among Asean members, Malaysia has the highest value of two-way trade with China. Last year, bilateral trade totaled US$96 billion, and this year it will surpass US$100 billion.

The most important outcome of Tun Mahathir's visit was to set a gold standard for future bilateral ties, especially over infrastructure investment between China and a weaker, smaller state. Mr Kuik and his colleague, Chin Tong Liew, recently conceptualised Tun Ma's approach to China as the "Mahathir doctrine". Basing on Tun Mahathir's numerous comments on the South China Sea conflict and regional community building amid various intertwining connectivity proposals, the two experts mapped out three elements comprising cooperation, consultation and respects for all countries in enriching and expanding the East Asia community. They said small states in Southeast Asia are now determined to seek more balanced ties with the great powers to tackle domestic pressure and external uncertainties.