The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into Asia affairs This conversation with Dr. Chow Bing Ngeow – director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – explores the past, present, and future of China’s Belt and Road in Malaysia.
Explain Malaysia’s challenge and opportunities in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI is a flexible and adaptable concept, although its key mantle remains traditional infrastructure such as rail and port. When the BRI was launched in late 2013, Malaysia was one of the most supportive countries. The then Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government of Najib Abdul Razak signed a mega-infrastructure deal with China called the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), which became the flagship BRI project in Malaysia.
When a new coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), came into power after the 2018 elections, it raised a lot of questions about ECRL, questioning its financing, lop-sided deal, and even possible involvement in corruption. But the PH government never repudiated the whole concept of the BRI. It continued to see the BRI as providing good opportunities for countries like Malaysia to upgrade and improve their infrastructure. The adaptable BRI, which now expands to policy areas such as digital connectivity (Digital BRI), green development (Green BRI), and public health (Health Silk Road) provide various kinds of opportunities for Malaysia to improve in these different policy sectors.
The PH government also saw Chinese advances in future-oriented industries such as AI, robotics, e-commerce, and the Internet of Things as opportunities for Malaysia to tap into. The challenges lie in the implementation of the BRI vision, namely how the individual projects were negotiated and executed. Here, countries, including Malaysia, need to be well prepared in negotiating these projects so that the projects have a high chance to be a net positive for their economic development.
What are Kuala Lumpur’s strategic objectives in the BRI?
Diplomatically Malaysia understands China sees support for the BRI as an important indicator of how countries assess their relationship with China. Kuala Lumpur wants to preserve a stable and positive relationship with Beijing and is willing to give strong rhetorical support to the BRI. But beyond that, there is also a genuine belief among many politicians and policymakers in Malaysia, across the political divide, that Chinese investment into the infrastructure sector in Malaysia potentially could bridge the gap of regional economic balances in Malaysia. Moreover, Chinese capital, technology, and talent can be well harnessed to support Malaysia’s next phase of economic development and upgrade its industrial chain to a more technologically advanced stage. From 1970s and 1990s, Malaysia relied a lot on Western and Japanese capital and technology during its early phase of industrialization. China is now a major economy (though not the only one), that is able to replicate that role for Malaysia’s economic and technological development.
How is Malaysia preserving its national interests amid U.S.-China rivalry in Southeast Asia?
The U.S.-China rivalry provides some immediate, short-term benefits in the sense that both major powers are offering benefits to Malaysia in a competitive context. But overall speaking, the deterioration of U.S.-China relations, and the destabilizing implications of such a rivalry in the region, is not something Malaysia welcomes. It prefers that the big powers settle and manage their differences. Malaysia continues to adhere to a non-aligned foreign policy. Its behavior is often described as “hedging” rather than balancing or bandwagoning. Although Malaysia is a party to the South China Sea dispute and is wary about the increasing assertiveness of China, it does not want the dispute to affect its overall ties with China, nor does it want to be drawn into the U.S.-China rivalry because of the dispute.
Analyze domestic factors in Kuala Lumpur’s decision-making to advance Malaysia’s foreign policy priorities.
Malaysia’s foreign policy is less determined by public opinion. Traditionally foreign policy has been very much an elite-driven process, with the prime minister as the center. Given the political distractions in the country right now, there is even less attention being given to foreign policy. By and large the country’s foreign policy has to serve, or at least not contradict significantly, the need for national economic development, which is crucial for ensuring political support for the government of the day.
Assess Malaysia’s expectations for U.S. leadership in Southeast Asia.
Malaysia definitely continues to welcome the U.S. to be a constructive actor in the region, to support ASEAN, and to be a reliable partner in improving the region’s economic development, public health, education, and so forth. It will also welcome the U.S. to provide a stabilizing balance in the context of the rising influence of China. But the U.S. should not cast its relationship with Beijing in overly ideological and confrontational terms and expect countries in the region to choose sides. Instead, Malaysia expects and wishes that for the U.S. to show leadership, it should contribute to public goods, pursue multilateral engagement, be less ideological and more pragmatic, and respect how the countries in the region pursue their own national interests.