Malaysia: Najib Visit to China Will Boost Bilateral Ties, Analysts Say

Muzliza Mustafa
Kuala Lumpur
2016-10-31
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161031-MY-china-620.jpg Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak gestures during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-Republic of Korea Summit, Sept. 7, 2016.
AFP

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak embarked Monday on a six-day trip to China that promises to usher in closer bilateral ties in defense, trade, economic cooperation and other areas, according to analysts.

While in China, Najib is expected to witness the signing of at least 10 bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding (MoU) in a host of areas, including Chinese investment in Malaysian infrastructure projects, state-run news agency Bernama reported on Monday.

Najib also is expected to sign a contract for Malaysia’s first significant defense deal with China – the purchase of Chinese-made navy ships, Reuters reported last week.

Balakrishnan R.K. Suppaiah, a senior lecturer in international and strategic studies at University Malaya, said Chinese assistance could boost Malaysia as it braces for economic uncertainty, as well as help Najib’s government smooth relations with his country’s ethnic Chinese minority.

“It will help fix relations between the Chinese Malaysians and the government,” Suppaiah told BenarNews.

Najib’s visit to China is his third as prime minister, and his second in two years.

As another analyst sees it, securing deals that could help Malaysia deal with current economic uncertainty could go a long way in boosting the prime minister’s image and his chances at re-election. Since July 2015, Najib has been mired in a corruption scandal linked to 1MDB, a Malaysian state investment fund that his government started in 2009.

“Trade and investment is crucial at a time when Najib needs a further boost in the Malaysian economy so as to enhance his performance legitimacy to govern the country,” Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based think tank, told CNBC.

“A sustainable growing economy, especially in 2017, will be a critical factor as to when Najib will hold the elections [due in 2018] and for Najib bolstering the chances of his coalition returning to government.”

US relations

Although Najib’s meetings in China signal warmer Sino-Malaysian ties, they will not affect Malaysia’s longstanding alliance with the United States, according to Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, an analyst with Bower Group Asia, a political risk consulting firm.

He said the U.S.-Malaysian relationship remained strong despite the American Department of Justice filing lawsuits earlier this year that sought to recover more than a $1 billion in assets allegedly paid for with money stolen from the 1MDB fund.

“The White House has and still views Najib favorably,” Asrul said, noting that Najib was a “key ally” in U.S. efforts to counter terrorism in Southeast Asia as well as the Obama administration’s geo-political strategy of pivoting American military power back into region.

“Malaysia has always been balancing its position among the big powers and will continue to do so,” said Dr. Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

South China Sea

Najib’s trip could also herald a lowering of tensions over the two countries’ territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS), analysts said.

“China will behave for now and that will ease the tension on SCS,” Suppaiah said.

Oh echoed that sentiment. “China can consolidate its good relations with neighbors, especially an SCS disputant such as Malaysia,” he said.

In July, a U.N. tribunal rejected China’s claims over the SCS in response to a complaint filed by the Philippines in 2013. The tribunal dismissed China’s claims to the seas delineated by its so-called nine-dash line.

Following the decision, the Malaysian government said countries could resolve their disputes through diplomatic and legal processes.

“Malaysia believes that it is important to maintain peace, security and stability through the exercise of self-restraint in the conduct of activities that may further complicate disputes or escalate tension, and avoid the threat or use of force in the South China Sea,” Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at the time.

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