Malaysia’s changing diplomacy towards China

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Oriental Daily

Oriental Daily

Malaysia and China are walking closer in recent years. The investment deals worth RM144 billion signed recently with China have stirred up certain controversy. Subsequently, the Najib regime invited Saudi King to Malaysia and also signed up with India bilateral investment projects worth RM159 billion. The M1 approach in playing a balanced diplomatic act among China, India and the Middle East countries may have sort of cut down certain unnecessary controversies.

In a multi-racial and multi-religious country, it demands certain skills to balance the psychics of the Muslims, Chinese and Indians and that is politics. By and large, Malaysia’s diplomatic policy since 1990 is to keep an equal distance with other countries. By being friendly to other countries and avoiding to deliberately offending any party may be called the major diplomatic approach of a minor nation.

Looking at history, Malaysia’s relations with China has gone through different stages, changing from anti-China and anti-Communist to neutral stance and now friendly cooperation with caution. It has not been a one-way street to a dead end alley. The different stages are done to suit the changing circumstances caused by both internal and external factors.

During the period from independence in 1957 to 1974 when Malaysia and China established diplomatic ties, Malaysia adopted a confrontational policy against China due partly to the Communist insurgency and the Cold War after WWII. At the peak of the Cold War in 1950, the US raised the domino theory and asserted that neutrality was immoral, demanding nations to take side. Under the Domino theory, when a nation fell into communism, its neighbor would also fall like dominoes. The concept only deepens global polarization.

However, certain countries like India advocated neutrality while Malaysia was still dependent on Britain in its defence and foreign policy. Malaysia signed the British-Malaysian Defence Treaty and took an active part in the British Commonwealth and followed the Anglo-American’s anti-Communist and anti-China policy. The defence treaty had effectively prevented Malaysia from falling into communism. It has also effectively protected Malaysia against Indonesia’s Confrontation in 1964 because Malaysia then did not have any naval, air and armed forces to speak of.

However, with the weakening of British influence and its 1968 announcement of retreating from Asia and the Middle East, Malaysia turned panicky.

After 1968, Home Minister Tun Dr Ismail advocated the policy of neutrality and actively promoted the five-nation defence agreement embracing Malaysia, Singapore, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. It showed that Malaysia was aware of its frail position.

In 1972, Tun Razak raised the concept of making Southeast Asia a zone of peace, neutrality and freedom and in line with this approach, Malaysia also adopted a one-China policy and supported China’s return to the United Nations, instead of the traditional two-China or one-China-one-Taiwan stance. Any form of neutrality would eventually need the guarantee of the US, Britain and China, or otherwise, it is just be paper talk.

The period between 1974 and 1990 saw Malaysia actively expanding the neutrality concept which had proven to be feasible. This also had something to do with US President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. The US found it difficult to extract itself after being stuck in the Vietnam War which has weakened its global prestige and economic strength. The gradual lifting of US blockade against China has also raised China’s status and changed the world situation.

As for Malaysia, the normalization of diplomatic ties between the US and China has provided the foundation for its neutrality concept. Of course, it was also due to internal factors that Malaysia became the earliest among the five Asean nations to establish diplomatic relations with China. The foreign policy of a nation is after-all an extension of its domestic politics.

Malaysia’s call for neutrality is not just a slogan but a strategy based on solid foundation. For example, Asean which was set up on Aug 8, 1967 looks on the surface like an economic and cultural grouping but in actual fact, it is also a collective political and defence organization. In other words, Asean was formed under the concept of uniting small and medium-size nations for greater strength and self-reliance.

Since 1990, Malaysia and China have entered into a new phase of comprehensive partnership. For example, Malaysia has lifted restriction on its citizens to visit China as in the past, only those above 50 years old were allowed to visit China. And more emphasis was given to economic cooperation as in Tunku’s time, his concern was only in politics and military security. He gave no consideration to trade and economic cooperation at all. This had something to do with Tunku’s anti-communist mindset and the background of that era.

Tun Razak was more pragmatic. For instance, as early as in 1971, Bernas had already tried to seek trade and economic cooperation with China. However, after the death of Tun Razak in 1976, Tun Hussein took over and during his reign, Malaysia-China relation was in a state of suspension. Some of Tun Razak’s close aides had even been accused of being Communist partners and were elbowed out. A turning point was when Mahathir took over in 1981.

This was due to Mahathir’s mindset against the West and also his emphasis on comprehensive security, especially economic security. In 1985, he led a 203-member strong delegation to China for an official visit. As China rose peacefully, he also rejected the theory that China was a threat. He promoted Asian values and thereby, bringing closer the Malaysian and Chinese value systems.

Looking at it from a domestic perspective, the signing of peace accord between Malaysia, Thailand and Malayan Communist Party as well as the disintegration of Soviet Russia and regime changes in Eastern Europe have also laid the strong foundation of Malaysia-China friendly cooperation.

As for China, after the re-emergence of Deng Xiaoping, the country was no more talking about exporting revolution or about eternal revolution, and no more engaging in internationalism which is detrimental to national interest. This also means China’s foreign policy has turned from political to economic, from internationalism to domestic development and truly put the five principles of peaceful co-existence into practice.

To many developing nations, China’s pragmatic policy of stressing more on economic and development cooperation had been better received by the ruling governments, compared to US policy of placing human rights above national sovereignty. To the general public, they also welcome the Chinese pragmatic diplomacy stressing more on trade and economic cooperation which is mutually beneficial. Of course, there are small number of elites who stress more on human rights and democracy.

Based on opinion polls, most Malaysians, including Muslims and Malays, have good perception of China, much better than the US. Clearly, the US soft power has not enhanced its appeals of so-called democratic and liberal system. Relations between nations are eventually determined by national interest. In Malaysia, the Chinese are happy to see the rise of China and further improvement of Malaysia-China ties. As for the Muslims, many in the world are resentful of the US and those in Malaysia are no exception.

For small and medium-sized nations, because of their own national interest, they would not simply take side. They would be smart enough to fine-tune their diplomacy to benefit from both sides. They would take advantage and make the best gains as the superpowers play the power games. In a globalized world of today, all nations are highly dependent on trade and economic cooperation while small and medium-sized nations must be cautious in their dealings with big nations. The smart approach taken by Malaysia and Indonesia seem to suit the post-Cold War era well and also in line with our national interest.

Strategically, the line taken by Malaysia and Asean is largely a balanced diplomatic approach to the big powers while at the same time, consolidate the strength and unity of small and medium-sized nations. For example, the expansion of Asean membership to 10 nations and further expanding the dialogue partners to Asean plus one, plus three and plus six now to further restrain these big powers. This is a smart diplomacy, appropriate with the times and circumstances.


Original Source: 大马对中国政策变迁