Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s official visit to China in late March proved to be a resounding success. Insiders who attended the meeting between Anwar and Chinese President Xi Jinping reported a strong sense of camaraderie between the two leaders. Politically, Anwar and Xi pledged to collaboratively establish the China-Malaysia community with a shared future. Anwar emphasized that China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), Global Development Initiative, and Global Civilization Initiative resonate with his flagship vision, Malaysia Madani.
Economically, the nations inked 19 Memoranda of Understanding that represent a historic peak in Malaysian investment, totaling more than 170 billion Malaysian ringgit ($38 billion). These investments span sectors such as agriculture, green technology, and the digital economy.
On the sensitive topic of South China Sea disputes, Anwar conveyed Malaysia’s readiness to negotiate with China. Anwar emphasized that China poses no direct threat and described Malaysia as a “good neighbor, friend, and eager beneficiary of China’s success.” This positive overture comes at a time when tensions between China and the Philippines are escalating.
Following their meeting, Anwar extended an invitation for Xi to celebrate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between their countries next year. Xi responded positively to the invitation.
Media outlets applauded Anwar’s initial trip to China as a significant foreign policy achievement, particularly in light of his earlier, less successful visit to Saudi Arabia. The Chinese ambassador to Malaysia stated that Anwar’s groundbreaking visit concluded triumphantly.
With the intensification of the geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States in Southeast Asia, it is crucial to maintain this positive momentum between China and Malaysia. By aligning China’s GSI with Anwar’s Malaysia Madani, security ties between the two nations can be strengthened during these uncertain times.
First, China, having successfully brokered a diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, can build upon its emerging role as an international peacemaker and work toward mending relations between Malaysia and North Korea. Currently, Malaysia is the only ASEAN member without diplomatic ties to North Korea, despite historically enjoying the closest relationship with the reclusive nation among Southeast Asian countries.
The 2017 assassination of Kim Jong Nam, brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, potentially orchestrated by North Korea, resulted in Malaysia’s vehement condemnation and the effective severance of diplomatic relations. In 2021, Malaysia extradited a North Korean businessman residing in Kuala Lumpur to the United States, despite Pyongyang’s objections, which led to the complete breakdown of relations between the two countries.
Anwar’s Malaysia Madani vision underscores respect for diverse civilizations and countries’ political systems. The Anwar administration aims to project Malaysia as an independent, enlightened “Islamic civilization,” rather than a subservient state to major powers. Analysts anticipate that Malaysia and North Korea will eventually restore diplomatic relations, given their historical ties. Efforts to reestablish these ties embody the principles of Malaysia Madani.
Given Beijing’s robust connections with both Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur, an incremental approach to mediating diplomatic relations between Malaysia and North Korea could significantly increase the likelihood of a positive outcome. Envision Kim Jong Un and Anwar shaking hands in Beijing. This collaboration would yield mutual benefits in economic and political relations for both countries and mark another significant milestone in implementing China’s GSI.
Second, China can leverage its influence to improve the relationship between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. It is well known that Anwar seeks to cultivate political and economic ties with Middle Eastern countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. Economically, Malaysia aims to attract investments and tourism from wealthy Gulf states to Southeast Asia. Geopolitically and culturally, an alliance between Malaysia and Middle Eastern states would bolster global Islamic civilization and Kuala Lumpur’s political influence in Southeast Asia.
However, Anwar’s Saudi trip, during which he failed to meet either the Saudi King or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was viewed as a diplomatic affront. Analysts speculated that Anwar’s perceived pro-West, specifically pro-U.S., stance might have contributed to the snub from the Saudis. Given Beijing’s strong relationship with Riyadh, China has the means and motivation to facilitate amicable ties between Riyadh and Kuala Lumpur for trilateral cooperation in areas such as oil and gas and renewable energies.
Lastly, under the GSI, Beijing should enhance defense cooperation and collaboration in the South China Sea to foster trust between the nations. It is undeniable that territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea pose risks to China-Malaysia relations. The 2021 incident involving 16 Chinese military transport planes flying near Malaysian airspace remains a contentious provocation. Furthermore, military-to-military relations have yet to return to pre-2018 levels.
Building trust regarding maritime disputes in the South China Sea is vital for stabilizing bilateral relations. Malaysia has long expressed concern over the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) entering its Exclusive Economic Zone near Luconia Shoals. By establishing mechanisms for consultation and collaboration between the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the CCG, distrust and the risk of confrontations can be minimized. Eventually, defense cooperation should align with the economic collaboration between the two countries.
By embracing innovative and visionary policies under the GSI, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur can set a precedent for countries in the Asia-Pacific region grappling with territorial disputes. By illustrating that strengthening overall ties and promoting regional peace and security is achievable, China and Malaysia can provide valuable guidance for others facing similar challenges.