Malaysia’s Openness to “True Friend” China: An Attempt at Economic Stability

Chinese Premier Li Qiang Red carpet treatment He arrived in the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia on Tuesday for the final leg of a three-country regional tour.

In his first two stops, New Zealand and Australia, Lee had to navigate complicated relationships with major trading partners beset by simmering differences.

But Li’s final stop was in friendlier territory. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has adopted a much more open stance towards Beijing and China. In public statements and interviews, Anwar has criticized growing “Sinophobia,” stressed his country’s non-aligned status, and called Chinese President Xi Jinping an “outstanding” leader. Said Malaysia is seeking to join the BRICS international alliance ahead of PM Lee’s visit.

By the time Lee leaves Malaysia on Thursday, Anwar It is called China is a “true friend.”

During Prime Minister Li’s visit, China I agreed to allow Import of fresh durian from Malaysia. Durian is a prickly, pungent fruit that is becoming increasingly popular among Chinese consumers. Malaysia, one of the world’s largest producers of durian, could only export frozen durian and related products to China until now. Malaysia exported $253 million worth of frozen durian products to China last year.

China and Malaysia sign Over 12 agreements A new five-year trade and economic cooperation agreement was also signed during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to the Southeast Asian countries.

Li also attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the terminal of Malaysia’s East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) in Gombak, Selangor. The ambitious China-backed ECRL project aims to link both coasts of Peninsular Malaysia. The Chinese premier said Beijing has Can be connected The ECRL will also apply to other Chinese-funded railway projects in Laos and Thailand, further expanding the country’s global infrastructure initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative, into the region.

Why is Malaysia and Anwar so soft on China?

China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for more than a decade and the Southeast Asian country needs to maintain good relations with Beijing.

“If the economy is not in the best shape and this much support is needed, you can’t be picky,” said Ei Soon Oh, a senior fellow at the Institute of International Affairs in Singapore.

Malaysia’s GDP 3.7% increase The growth rate for 2023 is expected to fall short of the government’s target of 4.0-5.0%. The government cited “weak external demand” as the reason for the weaker-than-expected result. Malaysia’s currency, the ringgit, has been trading at 1.6%. Weakened In recent years, the prices of imported goods have risen, leading to inflation.

The economy is becoming a bigger political concern for Anwar: 43% of Malaysians say they are unhappy with the government’s economic policies, up from 19% last year. November poll From Merdeka Centre.

Anwar visited China twice last year and secured “some pretty big investment deals” from Chinese companies during that visit, said Sheena Yue, a Singapore-based economist at Capital Economics.

Yue pointed to the extension of the visa-free travel agreement between China and Malaysia as a tangible benefit of Li’s visit. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, China was the third-largest supplier of visitors to the Southeast Asian country. But numbers have not recovered since China relaxed quarantine restrictions in early 2023. Only 1.5 million Chinese people visited Malaysia in 2023, significantly lower than the 3.1 million in 2019.

Geopolitics may also be playing a role. Malaysia’s government has long pursued a non-aligned strategy that is sometimes misconstrued as pro-China, said Rahman Yaakob, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia Program. “Malaysia is trying to attract as many investment and trade partners as possible,” he said.

Weng Chong Chia, an Asia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said Anwar’s positive stance on BRICS membership could be a ploy to “enhance Malaysia’s international standing”.

Cheah and Oh believe the war in Gaza could also foster friendly relations between Malaysia and China, many of whom support Palestine. Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks To protest US support for Israel.

Anwar also Defense strengthened He argued that maintaining ties with Hamas would allow him to help broker peace in the region.

But Yaacob doesn’t believe the war in Gaza is the cause of Anwar’s turn to China. Instead, analysts at the Lowy Institute see the prime minister’s approach as a way to foster a stable economy.

“Any government needs economic stability to survive,” he said. Anwar experienced this “first-hand,” having served as Malaysia’s deputy prime minister during the Asian financial crisis. “He knows that economic distress leads to political and security instability,” Yaakob said.

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