Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Commentary: Malaysia and China mark an important milestone in diplomatic ties

A DRAMATIC EVOLUTION

The geopolitical environment was very different 50 years ago. China then was still formally supporting the Malayan Communist Party, which was involved in armed conflict against federal forces. Malaysia imposed restrictions on Malaysian Chinese citizens’ travel to China to prevent unwanted influence.

Then Malaysian prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein decided to establish formal ties with China to cement Malaysia’s reputation as a non-aligned country. He also understood the political significance of being one of the first countries in the region to do so amid China’s rise as a regional power.

More importantly, he had founded Barisan Nasional, a multiracial coalition in the aftermath of the 1969 race riots.

Upon this diplomatic milestone, the two countries agreed on principles that would guide their relations henceforth, including the non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs. China agreed to recognise issues related to the Malayan Communist Party as such, signalling it would limit its support, and that Malaysians of Chinese origin did not also have Chinese nationality.

Since then, overall ties have been relatively smooth. The communist threat waned with a peace treaty and ultimate dissolution of the Malayan Communist Party in 1989. The opening up of China under Deng Xiaoping accelerated trade ties and Malaysia began to relax its policy of allowing Malaysian Chinese to visit China. In a generation, China became Malaysia’s largest trade partner.

Malaysia-China relations were said to have hit new highs during the Najib Razak administration.

China played up the fact that his father was the one who opened up ties and he reciprocated by committing Malaysia to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Najib was also motivated by the fact that China was the only major power willing to welcome him after the West shunned him in the wake of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal, signing deals and offering significant foreign direct investment to Malaysia during the later half of the Najib administration.