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Seminar on Transformation of Malaysia-China Relations: Drivers, Motives and Possible Impact


Monday, 23 October 2017 – The Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute has invited Dato’ Abdul Majid Ahmad Khan to deliver a public talk entitled “Transformation of Malaysia-China Relations: Drivers, Motives and Possible Impact”. Dato Abdul Majid was a former diplomat and had served twice in China as ambassador. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of Chinese Studies, University of Malaya as well as President of the Malaysia-China Friendship Association, Director of Malaysia-China Business Council, and Honorary Chairman of the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce. 

From Left to Right: Dr Francis Hutchinson and Dato’ Abdul Majid Ahmad Khan (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) 

The relationship between Malaysia and China has undergone three phases. During the first phase in the 1970s, initiating the relationship with China was a proactive move to ease the political threat and fear. Externally, Malaysia wanted to stay involved in the development of global affairs, notably the US-China rapprochement in 1972 during the cold war period. On the other hand, internally, Malaysia was facing the threat from Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and would like to garner support from the local Chinese community. This was also part of the Prime Minister’s effort to shift away from a pro-west to non-alignment strategy. However, it is noted that as China was still supporting communism, nothing had been done to grow the bilateral relationship.

1980s-2009 was the second phase - full engagement. It was the beginning of Chinese economic reform and opening-up. Corresponding to the policy change in China, Tun Dato' Seri Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad decided to develop the relationship further between the two countries after China stopped supporting the CPM. Various approaches had been taken to deepen the understanding and relationship among the two countries, such as through visits of higher-ups to the country, signing of bilateral contracts, and expansion of sectors such as tourism and education. Besides that, China was eager to integrate into the global system economically, as evident by the signing of WTO in 2002, so Malaysia pushed China to play an active regional role by introducing it into ASEAN.

Since 2009, with China’s stability and greater integration with the world, the two countries have now established full cooperation and partnership, which is the third phase of Malaysia-China relations. Now China is Malaysia’s top trading partner, along with its various infrastructure investments in Malaysia, especially those under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has also showed its support to Malaysia during the national and leadership crisis, particularly the MH370 disappearance and the 1MDB scandal. Malaysia has also tried to engage China more vigorously to serve the interest of ASEAN.

The seminar was attended by an audience of 72 people, including researchers, civil servants, students and members of public (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute) 

Despite the positive progress, Malaysia is aware of the implementation issues in managing the projects, such as the capacity of the Malaysian markets and supply of skilled labor. Other concerns include strategic intentions of China and the sovereignty, as well as economic dependency on China. According to a survey done in 2015, the disadvantages of China investment outweighs the advantages, especially among the Malaysian Chinese community and the cost of investment is perceived differently by the various races.

Dato Abdul Majid shared that the Malaysia-China BRI collaboration can possibly accelerate Malaysia’s transformation, in terms of infrastructure building and the subsequent economic implications. At a larger scope, Malaysia national policy can also be influenced by the geopolitical and geostrategic impact resulted from China’s active involvement in ASEAN and its relationship with US.

He concluded that the transformation from fear and suspicion in the beginning to the present partnership and cooperation has showcased the diplomatic achievement by Malaysian leaders. Moving forward, with China on the rise, Malaysia will continue to invest and maintain the bilateral relationship in a friendly and non-confrontational way but he stressed that with increasing presence of China in Malaysia, a bottom line must be set between the two countries to best serve Malaysia’s national interest.

For the Q&A section, concerns regarding China’s political stance and its attitude towards Malaysian politics were discussed. Dato Abdul Majid also highlighted that ASEAN should function as a unity and promote a regional identity. The talk was attended by an audience of 72 people, including researchers, civil servants, students and members of public.