MALAYSIAN Prime Minister NajibRazak is currently undertaking an official visit to China, his third after taking office in 2009, making a sum total of at least seven visits there, including working ones since then.
And during this visit, announcement after announcement of either fresh Chinese investments in Malaysia or other form of bilateral economic cooperation spill out almost on a daily basis, leaving newsreaders somewhat bewildered. Therefore, although Sino-Malaysian ties have always been quite close, speculations suddenly abound as to whether Malaysia would henceforth pivot more toward China and away from the United States.
One reason feeding such a conjecture has to do with, first, a year-long series of critical exposés in mainstream American newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and a US Department of Justice (DOJ) civil suit last August to reclaim allegedly misappropriated assets involving One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a Malaysian quasi-sovereign fund, where Najib chairs the advisory board. Najib’s stepson was explicitly named in the suit, and the identity of a “Malaysian Official One” therein was also obvious. Some quarters thus venture to surmise if the Malaysian authorities under Najib are somewhat dissatisfied by this apparent “doing in” by the Americans, and thus have decided to switch sides diplomatically from the US to China.
But I think such speculation perhaps underestimates Malaysia’s understanding of the American political system. The Americans practice a political structure that stresses prevention of conflicts of interest. Although the US attorney general is nominated by the president, he or she must also be confirmed by the Senate, which is often controlled by a different party than that to which the president belongs. The president will be hard-pressed to poke his finger into the running of the DOJ, not to mention instructing the DOJ to undertake politically connected investigations. As the famed 1970s Watergate scandal showed, sometimes the DOJ may even investigate cases involving a sitting president, albeit via an independent counsel or special prosecutor. The then president, Richard Nixon, was ultimately forced to resign after Congress passed articles of impeachment against him for, among others, attempting to obstruct investigations involving him.
A more recent example is happening right now, barely a few days before the US presidential election, when the DOJ decided to reopen investigations into the email affairs of Hillary Clinton, the presidential nominee of the same party as the current president, an act which undoubtedly would affect her electoral performance.
The Malaysian authorities have worked closely with their American counterparts over the years, and are quite cognizant of the rather “straitlaced” attitudes and practices of the American political system. It is almost inconceivable that the Malaysian side would consider the DOJ civil suit involving 1MDB as a specific unfriendly act by the Obama administration against Najib. In fact, during the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Laos, Obama and Najib briefly met in a cordial exchange.
A more realistic assessment on Malaysia’s moves has to be premised on the worldwide economic recession that continues to plague the economic performance of many developing countries, Malaysia included. Advanced countries such as the US and Europe are not even expected nowadays to increase their foreign investments. It is merely hoped that they could revive their own dismal economies so that they could import more from countries in this region. On the other hand, although China’s economy has also entered the so-called “new normal” stage, it is still running at least two to three times faster than other major economies. And China has expressed a huge interest in undertaking foreign investments in massive amounts primarily in its neighbor countries. As such, how could a developing country such as Malaysia not seek to enhance its economic ties with China?
In the past few months alone, there have been a number of leaders from Southeast Asian countries whose bilateral relations with China needed significant improvement but who nevertheless set aside previous differences and visited China officially. They include Myanmar’s new de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Prime Minister Nguyen of Vietnam, and President Duterte of the Philippines. All forged substantive economic cooperation deals with China, and signs of reconciliation abound. On the other hand, Sino-Malaysian ties have always been stable. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner, and Malaysia is China’s largest Asean trading partner. If even neighboring countries with “undulating” relations with China are attempting to work closely with China economically, Malaysia simply could not be left behind in this big regional scramble for Chinese largesse.
As a major trading country, Malaysia has to tread a very cautious line when it comes to reacting to various international great games. It must also not dwell on ideological differences but be more comprehensive in examining its bilateral ties. As such, sovereignty disputes with China in the South China Sea are often handled in a low-key manner, stressing on the overall positive mood of the bilateral relations.
On the other hand, although the US has tended to “preach” on Malaysia’s human rights record over the years, the two countries maintain significant economic (the US still being Malaysia’s largest foreign direct investor) and strategic (anti-terrorism and joint exercises) ties. Malaysia, like many other countries in the region, must always strive hard to find a neutral and balancing path among the superpowers.