China trip a missed opportunity?

10 Apr 2023 01:33pm
Anwar with Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang in Beijing
Anwar with Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang in Beijing

SHAH ALAM: The recent trip by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to China has been framed from a one-sided perspective, reinforcing the importance of China's investment promise of RM170 billion. This has further secured a win for China's President Xi Jinping's regional and global ambitions at the expense of Malaysia's bargaining power, making us look even more trapped.

The apparent effect of the trip sees China gaining greater influence in negotiating power over Malaysia, allowing it to dictate terms code of conduct (CoC) with regards to the South China Sea and other bilateral and regional flashpoints.

The prime minister is in an extremely tight spot, needing to ensure Malaysia's concerns on Beijing's military build-up are being channeled to Xi while also being ensuring to secure Beijing's goodwill in economic and financial input.

Malaysia's foreign policy under Anwar seems to be predominantly focused on building regional cohesiveness and economic interdependence through the biggest economic power and contributor in the region, namely China.

The praise and pandering to the leadership China's, coupled with the unprecedented praise and adherence to the agenda setting of getting Malaysia on board in Beijing's regional building capacity against external interference, is an indication of Malaysia's aligning with Beijing and while seemingly taking at face value its assurances of self-restraint.

Beijing’s regional and global ambition with renewed narrative and soft power projection have been almost blindly followed by Malaysia, as can be seen in the overwhelming praise of China’s role and Xi’s leadership.

We must urgently regain our bargaining chips and cards, and to widen our playbook by pulling in a greater depth of Western support and affiliation.

Beijing's regional and global ambition on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has invited blowback, made worse by its wolf warrior and coercive tactics. Xi’s new term has emboldened Beijing with options and range of measures in targeting the region either through hard power intimidation or continuous soft power sway through media influence and control, digital espionage and many others.
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Divide and conquer strategy has been given a push, in targeting more direct negotiations with affected players including Malaysia, where Beijing can use its expanded economic blackmailing tools to derive greater advantages.

Geopolitical tentacles in BRI and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have further capitalised on the renewed push of ousting growing Western attempts to strengthen its regional presence, and easy capital is offered in luring more regional players into Beijing’s sphere of control and influence.

This is worrying in the face of questionable infrastructure projects as part of the BRI, a programme whose crown jewels include Hambantota International Port in Sri Lanka, Ream Port in Cambodia which is notable for its potential military value and the East Coast Rail Line (ECRL) in Malaysia.

The ECRL is a symbol of Beijing's long-term pursuit of its regional calculations in trade and market security, involving trade routes and taking into account the long-term risks posed by Singapore and Indonesia.

Other BRI projects in the region and beyond reflect similar long-term intent, from weaponizing port bases to developing strategic ports and trade routes in the name of economic development and shared prosperity.

We made a strategic mistake when we affirmed that Malaysia does not see China as a competitor nor a threat, as this will effectively give more avenues for Beijing to increase its multi-faceted approach in dealing with us, where the power gap and leverage will only be exponentially increased.

The China trip is framed from an overwhelming perspective of positivity with little to no focus on the dissenting opinions and concerns raised. The long-term geopolitical and security risks on these investments and the extension of the BRI and economic influence in Malaysia are not being addressed, drowned by the waves of China pandering sentiments in securing the economic lifeline.

Our perceived efforts to diversify our economic reliance on Beijing and to increase the number of baskets for our eggs have failed to materialise, as seen in the still clueless strategic orientation of our external trade that has still predominantly relied on Beijing as the easiest way out for our economic dilemma.

China is aware of Malaysia's vulnerable economic position and is leveraging on its expanded grip and influence space to dictate Malaysia's economic relations with the West. It also wants some measure of control over Malaysia's advantage in the semiconductor manufacturing, rare earth elements (REEs) and other critical resources, especially as it faces increasing pressure to cut it off from Western technology and international markets.

Beijing is using Malaysia as a convenient and easy second front to expand its focus on critical areas, as it is squeezed by the US led embargo and sanctions on these key areas. Malaysia is seen as a potential puppet in finding leeway and ensuring it remains competitive as the US-China vie for influence in the Southeast Asia region.

Beijing’s broken promise of not militarising the South China Sea is enough of an indication to send clear signals of Beijing’s all hands on the deck approach, where there is no permanent friend or ally in its long-term revivalist ambitions, having learned bitter lessons of its past.

Regardless of Malaysia ’s perceived historical friendship that lasted centuries, for as long as we can serve its geopolitical objectives, accommodative credit support are aplenty but often disguised with ulterior agenda.

If there is a clear indication of our changed stance or where the cost benefit calculations no longer favour Beijing, we remain sitting ducks to its whims and fancies and increased bellicosity.

Beijing needs Malaysia to be fully committed to its neutral approach, as neutrality equals a free hand for Beijing to further expand its grip and influence and shut down further openings for the West to penetrate, especially in the realm of defense and security.

Wary of KL following the footsteps of Manila in securing greater US strategic military presence that will pose a greater deterrent capacity against Beijing’s South China Sea agenda and will threaten to weaken its options on Taiwan, Beijing is pulling out all stops to gain Malaysia’s trust and if its fails, would be compelled to use bigger sticks to compel us using hard power threats and economic blackmail.

Collins Chong Yew Keat is with Universiti Malaya, focuses on internationalisation and strategic management.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.
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