Portal to the Future – Opinion

Ma Xuejing/China Daily

A revitalized Belt and Road Initiative is helping drive Malaysia’s transformation into a high-tech nation.

The Belt and Road Initiative has promoted socio-economic development in Malaysia and the region. As it enters its 20th year, there are high hopes that it will continue to facilitate the transition to more sustainable growth in developing countries and enable them to harness the opportunities brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic event that took place in 1974 when Chairman Mao Zedong and then Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak met in Beijing and established diplomatic relations between China and Malaysia. Half a century later, ties between our two countries are stronger than ever.

In 2023, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim visited China twice, emphasizing the importance of fostering strong relations between the two countries. Among other agreements, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping committed to fostering trust among the world’s diverse cultures through the Global Civilization Initiative.

Economic cooperation has always been the cornerstone of China-Malaysia relations. Over the past decade, the BRI has emerged as a crucial catalyst, further promoting and shaping this strong economic cooperation between the two countries. In 2022, China-Malaysia trade will reach $203.59 billion, up 15.3% year-on-year. China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 15 consecutive years since 2009, accounting for 17.1% of Malaysia’s total external trade in 2023.

The BRI holds special historical significance for China-Malaysia relations. The sea route traces the 15th century voyages of Admiral Zheng He, who made a famous stop in the Sultanate of Malacca. These visits during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) laid the foundations for the first diplomatic and civilizational relations between ancient China and the Malay world. Not surprisingly, the BRI serves today as a rekindling of the old friendship established some 600 years ago.

Over the past decade, China has invested in various projects through the BRI, including Malaysia’s East Coast Rail Link, the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park, and the Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline.

These initiatives have brought about significant developments and transformed the social and economic landscape of Malaysia. However, as in the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the progress of the BRI in Malaysia.

Great power competition and geopolitical tensions also pose challenges, with trade tariffs and sanctions disrupting supply chains and stifling economic growth. Malaysia, along with the entire Association of Southeast Asian Nations, remains committed to open and free trade policies, and engages proactively with China and all other parties committed to advancing the public interest.

In fact, since its inception, the BRI has evolved beyond its traditional focus on infrastructure and expanded into diverse sub-initiatives, including the Health Silk Road, Green Silk Road and Digital Silk Road.

For example, the Health Silk Road has been part of the BRI framework in Malaysia. During the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s assistance in vaccine supply not only helped Malaysia manage the crisis, but also promoted China’s own vaccine capacity development. China has subsequently pledged to support Malaysia’s vaccine research and production, reflecting cooperative efforts in line with the Health Silk Road’s goal of improving global public health.

In recent years, China has emerged as a pioneer in renewable energy and green manufacturing. Through the Green Silk Road framework, China is strategically positioning itself as a pioneer in the global green technology revolution to benefit developing countries such as Malaysia. In addition to solar panels and electric vehicles, Chinese-made hydrogen buses are playing a pivotal role in Malaysia’s renewable energy transition.

China’s remarkable transformation into a technology powerhouse has given rise to a new sector: the Digital Silk Road. This initiative is expected to help Malaysia and other countries embrace the digital age. For example, Huawei has launched Malaysia’s second 5G network, which is expected to contribute greatly to the country’s technological advancement. Additionally, Alibaba has chosen Malaysia as its regional e-commerce hub and has signed a contract to transform Kuala Lumpur into the first “smart city” outside China using Alibaba’s technology.

In 2023, Anwar secured a new commitment from China to support Putrajaya’s New Industry Master Plan 2030 during his visit to the China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which is expected to leverage the Digital Silk Road to propel Malaysia into a high-tech nation.

As China-Malaysia relations mark 50 years, the two countries are expected to usher in a new era of closer people-to-people ties and enhanced economic cooperation, driven by a revitalized BRI.

Indeed, as it enters its 20th year, the BRI has evolved into a “Science and Technology Path” with innovation at its core, poised to facilitate developing countries, including Malaysia, transition into a future defined by the digital age and technological capabilities.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank run by China Daily.

These views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

To contact editors, please email editor@chinawatch.cn.

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