The upcoming 14th general elections (GE14) in Malaysia on May 9, 2018 are being vigorously contested between the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak and former premier Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.
In this election, Sino-Malaysian relations have become a point of dispute between the opposing parties. This is rather unusual, as foreign policy issues, let alone Malaysia’s bilateral ties with China, were seldom mentioned in previous elections. Indeed, growing domestic contestation within Malaysia prior to GE14 has brought to the surface problems associated with Malaysia’s increasing economic closeness to China.
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That China-Malaysia relations have become a contentious issue in GE14 is somewhat surprising, as it has long been recognized within and outside of Malaysia that both countries share a close and special relationship. Such positive ties began in 1974, when Malaysia became the first state in Southeast Asia to normalize ties with China. In the late 1980s, then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad started to promote closer economic cooperation between China and Malaysia. Presently, Malaysia is China’s largest trading partner among Southeast Asian states. China is also the largest source of foreign direct investment for Malaysia. Under Najib, Malaysia has deepened economic ties with China.
Ever since relations were elevated to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership, Malaysia has been a key partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This initiative has been dubbed a game changer for Malaysia’s infrastructural and economic development. China and Malaysia have also expanded cooperation in education, sociocultural exchanges, and gradually, in security as well, though these areas of engagement are dwarfed by the economic dimension of bilateral relations.
Thus, Malaysia’s willingness to show deference to China should not have been controversial, given that both parties have built their relations on mutual trust and willing partnership. Malaysia’s leaders have buttressed this mutual trust by consistently dismissing the so-called “China threat.” Malaysia’s friendly disposition toward China is nothing new, as it had been the case prior to Najib’s stint as prime minister.
To be sure, Malaysia has also sought to maintain its neutrality and nonaligned posture toward major powers, including China. Malaysia has done so through a hedging strategy, which seeks to keep equidistant from China and the United States. Simply put, this means that Malaysia is engaged in close economic relations with China, while simultaneously strengthening security ties with the United States.
If Malaysia’s deference toward China is controversial, this would have already been contested by the opposition and critics in past elections. It appears that Malaysia’s close relations with China per se need not have raised eyebrows.
However, some things have changed. In particular, China’s increasing assertiveness in recent years has triggered legitimate concerns over whether Malaysia is able to forge closer ties China while holding on to its purported hedging strategy. China’s more assertive behavior has also coincided with Najib’s tenure as prime minister. In recent times, China has been enforcing its claims in the South China Sea, such that Chinese vessels have reportedly entered Malaysian waters. This has caused a degree of alarm and speculation that Malaysia’s territorial sovereignty could be compromised by China’s assertive claims.
Such apprehensions have been compounded by external events. China has shown its willingness and ability to wield significant influence over Cambodia and Laos on several occasions to weaken the unity and resolve of ASEAN in confronting China regarding the South China Sea disputes. Sri Lanka, which had undergone Chinese-funded infrastructure development, has ended up in a debt trap.
While it is too premature to conclude that Malaysia would become another Cambodia or Sri Lanka, the fears surrounding China’s rising prominence and problems associated with it have cast doubts in the minds of some Malaysians. To some extent, these episodes have led to speculations in Malaysia that the country’s relations with China may not be as rosy as portrayed by its advocates.
Growing Domestic Contestation
Indeed, it is not easy for the Najib administration to maintain an overtly positive portrayal of bilateral ties in Malaysian politics, including GE14. Previous studies of Malaysia’s foreign policy have shown that under normal circumstances, the Malaysian government has been effective in shielding foreign policy decisionmaking and implementation from the scrutiny of political opposition and public opinion. Then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was able to achieve this feat given his hegemony in exercising tight control over the discourse and execution of government policies, including those that affect foreign affairs.
However, Najib does not possess the same hegemonic powers as Mahathir did. Throughout his premiership, Najib has had to contend with an emboldened opposition coalition, which gained to significant success during the 2008 and 2013 elections. Furthermore, in the post-Mahathir era, and starting from the period of the Abdullah Badawi government, Malaysians in general have become more vocal and have demonstrated their willingness to engage in social protests and show greater support for the opposition camp.
In view of this, it was only a matter of time before the opposition and several members of the general public began to take pot shots at the foreign policy of the Najib administration. And Sino-Malaysian ties is one arena that has come under much scrutiny.
So far, for GE14, Mahathir and his PH coalition have strongly criticized controversial aspects of the Najib administration’s economic policies toward China. For example, the PH coalition has warned about the dangers of a debt trap and questioned the viability and benefits of various megaprojects such as the Malacca Gateway and the East Coast Rail Link. The opposition has also zeroed in on the large influx of businesses, workers, and investments from China, which could endanger the prospects of local companies and employees in Malaysia.
The opposition camp has not only painted the Najib administration as selling off Malaysia’s “sovereignty” to China, but has also promised to review and revise Malaysia’s economic policies toward China if necessary. In response, the Najib administration has refuted the aforementioned criticism while highlighting that the reversal of such policies could unravel China-Malaysia relations.
The battle lines in Malaysia’s general elections are usually drawn on domestic issues rather than foreign policy matters. GE14 is no exception. Even though the PH coalition’s attempt to play up the China factor may only have a superficial effect on the outcome of the election, at the very least, growing domestic contestation has led to serious reflection among Malaysians on Malaysia’s economic embrace of China.
So far, China has overtly upheld the principle of noninterference in the domestic affairs of other countries, including Malaysia. Nevertheless, some events have aroused suspicions that this might not be the case. For instance, one could point to China’s alleged hand in bailing out Malaysia’s 1MDB, as well as former Chinese Ambassador Huang Huikang’s remarks which defended China’s business interests in Malaysia. Furthermore, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) of the Barisan Nasional (BN) government has actively positioned itself as a bridge between China and Malaysia. In fact, Chinese diplomats have been participating in several MCA-supported events in Malaysia.
Of course, China’s supposed interference in the domestic affairs of Malaysia is a debatable issue. Yet, one cannot deny that China’s rising prominence alone has already caused worries among some Malays in the country. Some of them fear that China’s rise could bolster the political ambitions of Malaysian Chinese, thereby weakening the political power of Malays. This also raises the question of whether the Najib administration (assuming that it wins GE14) and future Malaysian governments could continue the present course of Sino-Malaysia relations without triggering a potentially greater backlash from the wider Malay community within Malaysia.
Together, these developments, and in particular, GE14, could indicate a gradual change in the dynamics of Malaysia’s foreign policy. Increasingly, foreign policy decisionmakers in Malaysia may have to face more public scrutiny in the near future. It is probable that this scrutiny would not be limited to Sino-Malaysian relations but other aspects of foreign affairs. In other words, it is more difficult for Malaysia’s ruling elites to maintain a clear-cut separation of foreign policy and domestic affairs.
Finally, if the Najib administration had not been battered by mounting political, social and economic woes in the context of a rising and more assertive China, Sino-Malaysian relations would probably have received less attention than it deserves in GE14. These woes have cast a dark shadow over Najib’s foreign policy, such that what was once considered as a norm, namely strong relations with China, is now viewed by some Malaysians through the lens of skepticism.
David Han Guo Xiong is a Senior Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article is part of a series of commentaries by RSIS on the 14th Malaysian General Election.