Second meeting brings better understanding

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 6, 2019 - May 12, 2019.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Mahathir at the signing ceremony at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing. Photo by Reuters

Mahathir and Siti Hasmah being greeted by Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan at the BRF banquet. Photo by Reuters

A meeting of great minds. Photo by Reuters

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SHORTLY after Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad returned from his official visit to Beijing in August last year, he told Malaysiakini in an interview that he wanted to tear down the wall that surrounds the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park (MCKIP), dubbed the “Great Wall of China” by the locals.

Some Malaysians took his remark to mean that he did not manage to break the ice with the Chinese leaders at the time. On top of that, Mahathir announced the termination of three mega infrastructure projects, one of which was the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), which then cost RM66 billion to build.

Many, including the business community and opposition leaders, criticised Mahathir for upsetting China. Detractors commented that he was new to the superpower, that he might not be aware that China was different now. After all, it is Malaysia’s largest trading partner, which has a trade deficit with us.

Do the detractors think the 93-year-old leader, who has earned the respect of the developing nations (of which China is still one), does not know international affairs?

Indeed, Mahathir had visited China seven times when he was the prime minister between 1981 and 2003. Given his age, he has rubbed shoulders with the most number of Chinese presidents and premiers than others in his political career.

In fact, few fully understand his tactics when it comes to foreign affairs.

It is worth noting that eight months on, the wall around MCKIP is still standing. And that Mahathir has made his second visit to China to attend its second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing from April 24 to 28.

The fact that the leaders of the two countries made time to meet again in less than nine months, despite the tension, shows that both sides intend to remain friends.

Clearly, Mahathir and Chinese President Xi Jinping were looking for an amicable solution. And they seemed to have found it this time around, although it may not please everyone.

Before Mahathir arrived in Beijing, Malaysia had decided to revive the ECRL but at a lower cost of RM44 billion, which was more affordable considering the country’s current fiscal position. More importantly, a 50:50 joint venture was formed to operate the rail link with China Communications Construction Company Ltd (CCCC) helping shoulder the operation risks and losses.

The ECRL is among the infrastructure that forms a critical part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to improve connectivity across Asia and further to Europe. Indeed, the project’s revival is an endorsement of BRI.

In his meeting with his Chinese counterpart Premier Li Keqiang at Diayuetai State Guesthouse, Mahathir joked that if each of China’s 1.4 billion population consumed a spoonful of palm oil a day, Malaysia would be rich.

Soon after the meeting, the two leaders witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Malaysian Palm Oil Council and the China Chamber of Commerce of Import and Export of Foodstuff, Native Products and Animal By-products, which is under the purview of China’s Commerce Ministry.

The MoU entails the export of more palm oil to China and more Chinese investments in the industry’s downstream activities.

Malaysia can also expect more Chinese investments in the corridors along the ECRL following an agreement inked between the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA) and CCCC.

However, MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong wants the government to reveal the details of the MIDA-CCCC MoU, taking his cue from a blogger who claims that a lot of land along the double-track rail link will be given to the Chinese. To this, Mahathir notes that the government could do that but it needs to take into account of the Chinese’ “feelings”.

A framework of agreement to reinstate the commencement of the massive Bandar Malaysia development was also signed in front of Mahathir and Li.

Some may be dismissive of the framework of agreement because it still entails more negotiations to iron out the details before the final agreement is signed. Still, it is proof of commitment by both parties to the completion of the project in Kuala Lumpur, which was to house the terminal of the shelved KL-Singapore high-speed rail.

Furthermore, IWH-CREC Sdn Bhd — a joint venture between Iskandar Waterfront Holdings and China Railway Engineering Corp — is committed to make an advance payment of RM1.24 billion for Bandar Malaysia in two months.

Only three documents were signed during Mahathir’s recent trip to China, which seems insignificant compared with former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s usual long list of contracts.

Diplomatic relations with China were perceived to have grown cold after Pakatan Harapan took over Putrajaya. The main reason was said to be the new government’s termination of some mega infrastructure projects, three of which involved Chinese state-owned enterprises.

One of the three projects — the RM4 billion Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline (TSGP) — was among the “red files” discovered by the PH government. The crux of the matter is that although 88%, or RM3.5 billion’s worth, of TSGP’s total cost was already paid, the only work done was the clearing of 12% of the land.

TSGP was cited as an example on how the cost of infrastructure projects was inflated by the Barisan Nasional government.

Coming back to the BRF, the weather in Beijing was colder than usual but the host extended a warm welcome to Mahathir, his wife Tun Dr Siti Hasmah and his delegation, which included Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, Transport Minister Anthony Loke, Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin and Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, as well as Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mukhzri Mahathir and the envoy and chairman of the Malaysia-China Business Council Tan Kok Wai.

Mahathir was chauffeured in the most expensive bullet-proof China-made limousine — the Hongqi L5 — around Beijing and then to the Yangqi lake 60km away, where 36 world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Sultan of Brunei Darussalam, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, had gathered for a roundtable dialogue.

Interestingly, Mahathir’s entourage, including the six ministers, travelled around in a 20-seater van.

Mahathir told the Malaysian media that he was impressed that all the leaders, regardless of the size of their countries, were given equal treatment. This was important to him as he is regarded as the outspoken leader of a developing nation who dares to voice his opinions before the leaders of the developed world.

Mahathir has made it clear that Malaysia supports the BRI. He acknowledged that he had had a misconception of BRI, believing that it was just another geopolitical ploy of a big nation to gain control of other countries on the pretext of enhancing free trade. He said the forum gave him a better understanding of the initiative.

He was among the few leaders selected to give a speech at the opening ceremony of the BRF. Mahathir was the only Asean leader to speak at the opening and the first Malaysian prime minister to have the honour.

In a group photograph of all the leaders who attended the BRF, Mahathir and his wife were put in the front row, just a few places to the left of Xi. It is believed that the couple sat next to Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan at the main table at the BRF banquet.

In his meeting with Mahathir, Xi highlighted that China was the first country outside Asean that the former had visited officially last year. The Chinese leader expressed his appreciation at what he considered Malaysia’s intention to continue to strengthen its diplomatic ties with China.

Xi commented that Malaysian-Sino relations had begun a new chapter and acknowledged the rise of New Malaysia.

Old friendships die hard. Let’s hope that the same is true of the bilateral ties between China and Malaysia and that they are mutually beneficial.

 

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