RELATIONS BETWEEN MALAYSIA and China have a history of blowing hot and cold. Malaysia’s new prime minister, if new is an appropriate adjective for the 93-year old Mahathir Mohamad, has brought a renewed chill, even though he has been a longtime friend of China by dint mainly of his criticisms of the West.
Mahathir has halted several high-profile, big-ticket infrastructure projects involving Chinese firms for review, including:
- the $20 billion East Coast Rail Link under construction by China Communications Construction Co. and mostly financed by Export-Import Bank of China;
- the $10 billion Melaka Gateway project , which involves three artificial islands and a cruise ship terminal, being developed by PowerChina International; and
- the $2.5 billion trans-Sabah natural gas pipeline led by a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corp.
Restrictions have also been imposed on the sales of units in Forest City, a $100 million real estate development on four artificial islands aimed at buyers from China.
There is also a report that three pipeline projects suspended in July have been cancelled outright, an oil and gas pipeline in peninsula Malaysia and another on Borneo, and a pipeline linking a Petronas refinery and petrochemical plant in Johor to Malacca. They had a combined cost of $2.8 billion.
Mahathir has several reasons for applying the brake.
One is purely financial. The first three are expensive projects that saddle the country with even more debt. Malaysia can just about manage its foreign-currency debt, but only just about. It cannot afford to let its financial position deteriorate, which, if the troubles of Argentina’s peso and Turkey’s lira spillover into other emerging market currencies, it could do quickly. Furthermore, Mahathir had long held that the country’s debt holds back its development. Nor does he want to risk Malaysia going the way of Sri Lanka, which had to yield control of a new port to China to settle debt it could not repay.
A second is political. In the wake of the 1MDB scandal. Mahathir is cracking down on what it believes is a whole raft of corruption-tainted deals struck during the previous administration of Najib Razak. The three deals mentioned above were all made within Najib’s time, and Mahathir has criticised them for being opaque.
A third is geopolitical. Mahathir is concerned about China’s increasing activity in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where Malaysia has claims of its own over a dozen Spratly islands and a large acreage of oil and gas. Being in hock to China, which is also Malaysia’s largest trading partner, weakens Kuala Lumpur’s hand in pushing back against Beijing’s maritime assertiveness. Mahathir is strengthening relations with Japan and Australia to counterbalance China’s influence.
A fourth reason Malaysia’s relationship with its city-state neighbour, Singapore. The two nation’s relations with China tend to be the inverse of each other. Singapore’s relations with China are currently on the up.
Mahathir has said he will hand over the presidency to his deputy Anwar Ibrahim at some point, but may choose to make that point further into the future than he initially indicated (within two years). Anwar, though he has backed the review of the Chinese investments, would likely be more favourably disposed towards China. The further out the hand-over, the longer Malaysia-China relations will remain chilly.
Update: The Financial Times is reporting that Pakistan is initiating a similar review of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. That would have greater weight for Beijing than Malaysia’s review because of the corridor’s strategic importance, including its access to Gwadar, the port on Pakistan’s south coast on the Arabian Sea.