Malaysian PM to focus on stronger economic ties during China visit

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian PM to focus on stronger economic ties during China visit Malaysia Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who also serves as finance minister, holds budget documents as he arrives at Parliament in Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 24, 2023.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim embarks on his first official visit to China on Wednesday, where he will focus on strengthening economic ties during his four-day trip to shore up infrastructure and digital investments back home, he and his office said. 

The issue of overlapping claims in the South China Sea may be raised in a closed-door session, analysts said, adding that as the dispute was unlikely to be resolved soon it would only overshadow economic ties both countries seek to benefit from. 

“I will go to China on Wednesday, then we will announce a new investment later on Thursday or Friday, which is the highest commitment of the government,” Anwar said while addressing the Malaysian diaspora in Cambodia on Monday at the Malaysian Embassy in Phnom Penh. 

“This is to ensure the growth of Malaysia’s economy and attract new investments.” 

Anwar said infrastructure and digitization need to be strengthened to guarantee Malaysians’ education and health. 

Liew Chin Tong, International Trade and Industry deputy minister, told BenarNews on Tuesday that Anwar’s visit was meant to build mutual trust and understanding between Malaysia and China. 

“The Malaysia-China relationship is important because China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and China is a highly consequential regional and global player,” he said. 

Anwar, in his maiden press conference after taking office in November, emphasized the importance of enhancing relations with China, describing the country as a crucial neighbor. 

“Of course, it’s a priority to enhance bilateral trade, investment and cultural relations with China. I would not just leave ties with China as it is. They need to be enhanced,” he said at the time. 

China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner over the last 14 years, with bilateral trade reaching a record high of U.S. $203.6 billion (898 billion ringgit) last year, according to Collins Chong Yew Keat, a foreign affairs analyst at the University Malaya. 

Chong said Malaysia is in critical need of Beijing investments in key areas, including local transportation, property, the digital domain and areas of future interests such as 5G, artificial intelligence and green energy. 

“This visit will focus heavily on these areas and on further enhancing economic, business and financial ties and partnerships that are made more urgent and critical for both players, as both scramble to reignite their economic recovery mode since the fallout of the pandemic,” he told BenarNews. 

Malaysia is shifting its focus toward a digital and green economy, with a strong emphasis on high-tech and digital technology sectors, Chong said, adding Beijing sees this as an opportunity to establish its footprint in these areas and play a bigger role in Malaysia’s economic transformation. 

On Monday, Mao Ning, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, described Malaysia as an important emerging economy and said that Anwar’s visit would enhance bilateral relations as they celebrate their comprehensive strategic partnership’s 10th anniversary. 

“We hope this visit will promote new progress in bilateral relations as our two countries work together toward a community with a shared future,” she said at the ministry’s regular press conference. 

South China Sea issue 

Meanwhile, analysts noted that if the South China Sea dispute is raised at all, it won’t be in public, as Malaysia is prioritizing economic collaboration over the ongoing conflict, which involves several countries. 

“The issue of the South China Sea dispute would at most be raised in the closed-door session,” Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs told BenarNews. 

Oh said Malaysia cannot put up an effective fight with China in the South China Sea dispute, leading to a preference for handling the issue privately and prioritizing economic collaboration over confrontation. 

“If [it raises it] at all, it would see no immediate resolution, and would only serve to overshadow the larger, closer economic collaboration,” he said. 

Another analyst agreed with Oh. 

“Anwar could address the South China Sea dispute. The question is whether he chooses to do so publicly in China. That could underscore the seriousness of the matter to Malaysia but may take political skill to pull off when he also seeks economic cooperation. It could happen, but I would be cautious,” Chong Ja Ian, of the National University of Singapore, told BenarNews. 

Chong said previous Malaysian premiers have been cautious in handling the South China Sea dispute with China, balancing economic interests, despite the issue being a matter of sovereignty. 

“From my understanding, past Malaysian administrations publicly displayed varying degrees of concern over repeated Chinese incursions into waters disputed between Malaysia and China.“Few have opted to initiate action to challenge or call out Chinese incursions, probably out of considerations of wanting to keep relations stable,” Chong said.

“That said, the disputes are matters of sovereignty in addition to the economic interest that no responsible administration should take lightly.”


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.