“A Political Reading of Najib’s Visit to China”, by Tang Siew Mun

Commentary 2016/69, 1 November 2016

Yesterday, Prime Minister Najib Razak kicked off his week-long official visit to China. The visit, which comes hot on the heels of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “gift” of separation from the US last month,” will be closely scrutinised for signs of a “China turn.”

The Malaysian prime minister added to the speculation of Malaysia’s increasing cosiness with China when he shared that Malaysia and China will be “signing many new agreements and understandings that will elevate the relationship between our two nations to even greater heights.”

Under normal circumstances, the statement will be filed away under the “diplomatic” category, but these are not normal circumstances. What is the significance of Najib’s third official visit to China, the sixth overall since he assumed the premiership in 2009?

First, Najib is again turning to Beijing to pull Malaysia’s economic chestnuts out of the fire. Recall that in 2015, China pumped in billions of dollars to rescue the embattled 1MDB. In a similar vein, the Malaysian prime minister is pinning his hopes on a large-scale infusion of funds to support the priority projects outlined in his recent national budget speech, including a 620-km East Coast Rail line which carries a RM55 billion price tag.

To be sure, China has recently emerged as Najib’s economic saviour, but salvation may come a high political cost that may manifest in constraining Malaysia’s strategic options in the political-security domain. If the trend of singular dependence continues, Malaysia may soon end up as a client state à la Cambodia. Thus, do not hold your breath for the South China Sea disputes, which Malaysia is a claimant state with high stakes, to come up in Najib’s discussion with President Xi Jinping or at any other time during his seven-day stay in China.

Second, Malaysia is expected to ink a major arms deal with China to purchase up to ten Littoral Mission Ships. If the deal, which was prematurely announced by Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein goes through, it will mark a major breakthrough for China into the Malaysian defence establishment, elevating the military-to-military ties to heights previously unseen.  China’s success is noteworthy for its speed and depth as Malaysia is not known to have extensive military relations with its largest trade partner, having conducted their first joint military exercise only as recent as December 2014.

The proposed arms deal also brings to light the good relations the Malaysian Armed Forces has with the People’s Liberation Army, which may explain the former’s lacklustre efforts in firming up Malaysia’s strategic presence around James and Luconia Shoals in the South China Sea.  This raises the question if Malaysia can juggle between its close economic ties with China and its political-strategic interests.

At the end of the day, Najib’s sixth visit to China may turn out to be the one that carries the highest strategic significance for Malaysia. In contrast to Duterte’s penchant for megaphone diplomacy and theatrics, Najib is quietly and steadily recalibrating Malaysia’s strategic posture by deepening its multi-faceted engagement with China.  Action speaks louder than words, and Najib’s actions over the course of this week will have profound implications for Malaysia and ASEAN.

Dr Tang Siew Mun is Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
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