Malaysian PM defends China again, says hindering its ascent will raise tensions

Ili Shazwani Ihsan
2024.03.07
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian PM defends China again, says hindering its ascent will raise tensions Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim speaks at the Australian National University in Canberra, March 7, 2024.
Jamie Kidston/The Australian National University/Handout via Reuters

Malaysia’s leader warned on Thursday that any actions to impede the economic rise of China would upset Beijing enough that it would heighten tensions in the region. 

Alluding to increasing Chinese assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea – most of which Beijing claims – Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim added that allowing a country to grow doesn’t mean ignoring its violations of international law.

In China’s eyes, hostile reactions to its rise “represent nothing less than an attempt to deny their legitimate place in history …,” Anwar said during a speech at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“The obstacles being placed against China’s economic and technological advancement will only further accentuate such grievances.” 

Southeast Asia and the Pacific region have seen tensions rise in recent years as the United States attempts to counter China’s influence there. 

The South China Sea has also become a theater for big-power rivalry, as Washington has accused Beijing of undermining freedom of navigation.

However, according to Anwar, how countries respond to China’s economic and technological advancement will determine whether “détente or discord” characterize Southeast Asia.

What countries should show, he said, is “a measure of empathy; to put ourselves in their shoes; to see how others see us,” Anwar said in the address. 

The prime minister’s speech was headlined “Navigating geopolitical currents: Malaysia and Australia’s role in the Asia-Pacific.”

He delivered the speech in the Australian federal capital after a three-day special ASEAN-Australia summit in Melbourne, where the main topics of discussion were the South China Sea and Israel-Hamas war.

MY-pic-2.jpg
Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, March 31, 2023. [Photo courtesy Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office]

While speaking about China’s rise and attempts to impede that advancement, the Malaysian PM did not mention which countries were taking such actions.

However, earlier this week, he reiterated a comment he made last month about how the United States and the West were displaying “China-phobia.”

At a press conference on Monday, he was asked why he made that accusation in an interview with a British daily last month.

His answer was indicative of the pressure that Southeast Asia’s countries are under to remain neutral as Washington and Beijing try to one-up each other in the region.

Anwar said Malaysia is often criticized for what some Western countries believe is its slight tilt toward China.

“[M]y reference to China-phobia is because [against] the criticism levied against us for giving additional focus to China – my response is … right now China seems to be the leading investor,” in Malaysia, Anwar said.

Being a friend with the U.S. or Europe doesn’t preclude Malaysia from being a friend to its neighbor China as well, he said.

“And if they have problems with China, they should not impose it upon us. We do not have a problem with China. So, that’s why I referred to the issue of China-phobia in the West,” he said.

‘Washington Consensus is gradually eroding’

Anwar wasn’t done criticizing the U.S. or the West.

In his speech in Canberra, he noted that changes brought about by phenomena such as globalization had altered U.S. foreign policy, and not positively.

Globalization did not work for the U.S. as it did for Asia’s workers, and long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a toll on Americans, Anwar said.

“The upshot is a preference for leaders who are more transactional with the rest of the world – those who profess to put America first,” he said. 

Anwar said the world must also recognize that “the Washington Consensus is gradually eroding, if [it has] not altogether disappeared.” 

He was referring to a set of market-oriented policies for the developing world that global financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund support.

We should therefore not be surprised when forums such as BRICS start to gain purchase. If one avenue for asserting new realities is impeded, others will take its place,” he said. 

BRICS is an intergovernmental organization comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. 

“Accordingly, we should not take for granted that Western perspectives on the future world order would be embraced universally. There is growing impatience with how global institutions are failing to reform themselves,” Anwar said.

Chinese official appreciates Anwar’s comments

The Malaysian PM’s recent comments have not gone unnoticed by Chinese officials, with Zheng Xuefang, minister at the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia, expressing his appreciation on Wednesday.

“The development of China is an opportunity for the world rather than a threat to anyone,” Bernama, the Malaysian state-run news agency, quoted him as saying during a visit to its offices in Kuala Lumpur.

Meanwhile in China, Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Thursday emphasized the importance of economic diplomacy.

“China cannot develop without the world, and the world cannot develop without China,” he told reporters after the second session of the 14th National People’s Congress, according to a statement on the foreign ministry website. 

“Badmouthing China will definitely backfire on itself, and misjudging China will [lead to] miss opportunities,” he said.MY-pic-3).jpg

A woman walks with the national flags of the United States and China ahead of the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping near the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit headquarters in San Francisco, Calif., Nov. 14, 2023. [Loren Elliott/AFP]

Brave talk from Anwar, but Malaysia needs to be careful it doesn’t become overly dependent on China in trade and economy, said Chong Yew Keat, a foreign affairs analyst at University Malaya.

That could create long-term risks to Malaysia’s economic and security fundamentals, Chong said, noting that China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner over the last 14 years.

Malaysia is in critical need of Beijing’s investments in key areas, such as local transportation, property, 5G, artificial intelligence and green energy. 

After a state visit to China last April, Anwar said he had received commitments of nearly U.S. $39 billion in new investment.

Chong also expressed concerns about Malaysia’s approach in the South China Sea dispute, especially its oil and gas reserves in its exclusive economic zone.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the EEZs of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

“Malaysia will need to unwaveringly stand up to the steadfast protection of the rules-based order based on international law and norms and ensure a free and open navigation and a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Chong told BenarNews.

“As a maritime trading nation where [Malaysia’s] economic survival depends overwhelmingly on maritime trade, Malaysia and the region cannot afford to … to repackage the notion of a free, open, and rules based regional order according to different non-Western interpretations, to justify the call for the exclusion of Western powers’ presence or ‘interference’ in this region.”

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