Trade minister debunks Malaysia’s distaste for China’s Belt and Road as misrepresentation

Leiking said Pakatan's position on China's Belt and Road Initiative has always been about setting clear parameters. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Leiking said Pakatan's position on China's Belt and Road Initiative has always been about setting clear parameters. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

KUALA LUMPUR, April 28 — Critics of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) had warped the Pakatan Harapan government’s request to review the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project as distaste for Beijing’s ambitious global trade plan, Malaysia’s International Trade and Industry Minister Darell Leiking said.

Leiking told the South China Morning Post in an exclusive interview that the resumption of the multi-billion ringgit rail link project showed the two countries remained close trade partners despite what naysayers said.

“Contrary to naysayers, contrary to all those who negated all our good intentions, we’ve proven, and so has China, that we’ve always remained close, both our governments and also our private sectors,” Leiking was quoted as saying in an article published last night.

The Penampang MP is currently in Beijing to attend the second Belt and Road Forum with Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and several other Cabinet ministers.

China has been Malaysia’s biggest trade partner for the past 10 years while Malaysia is one of the middle kingdom’s top 10 trade partners. Bilateral trade grew to US$108.62 billion (RM448.8 billion) last year, an official in the Malaysian Embassy to China for the economic section See Chee Kong said in March.

ECRL developer China Communications Construction Company agreed last month to reduce the project’s cost by RM21.5 billion to RM44 billion following a successful bilateral negotiation that lasted nearly six months.

Leiking, who is also the Penampang MP, said the new administration’s position about the initiative has always been about setting clear parameters for the BRI.

The RM21.5 billion price cut on the original ECRL deal illustrated that it was possible to enforce clear parameters for projects ­under the initiative so there will be no “abuses”.

“There were many allegations made by outsiders who said there’s no transparency [in financial negotiations for BRI projects].

“For Malaysia and China, the recent ECRL negotiations show how transparent we are and how transparent we could have been earlier,” Leiking, who holds the international trade and industry portfolio, told the Hong Kong daily.

Last Thursday, Dr Mahathir witnessed the signing of two Memoranda of Understanding and a framework agreement to revive a China-backed prime property project in Kuala Lumpur, Bandar Malaysia, shelved two years ago.

One of the MoUs aims to woo more Chinese investment in industrial estates and infrastructure along the 640-km ECRL route that will cut through the country’s less developed areas.

The ECRL project also commits China to buying an estimated extra RM4.56 billion worth of palm oil over a five-year period starting from this year.

This comes after the European Union passed a law banning any imports of Malaysian palm oil over allegations of rampant deforestation and the destruction of wildlife, a move Malaysia said would hurt smallholders the most.

Leiking in response said the allegations were baseless and created by “paid lobbyists”.

“I think the Europeans have to learn a little bit, they have to stop judging us from their heights,” he was quoted saying.

“China has been very receptive... and there’s even a European country that might cooperate very closely with us on palm oil, though I cannot mention which one now. So it’s all about educating themselves and to stop believing paid lobbyists.”

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