The Mahathir Doctrine: A new deal between Malaysia and China — Liew Chin Tong

JULY 13 — The return of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad may be a rare window of opportunity in history for Asean, China and United States to find a new rule-based arrangement for South China Sea, and to begin a new deal between Malaysia and China broadly and comprehensively.  

The change of government is beneficial for our bilateral relationship. On the surface, it seems that Malaysia-China relations require adjustments as the new government under Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad seeks to renegotiate infrastructure deals deemed unfavourable to Malaysia. 

Much as these adjustments seem difficult, the reset may be worthwhile for both sides as Malaysia moves away from the Najib Razak government’s transactional mode of foreign policy-making to one that is built on the basis of Malaysia as a “middle power” with credibility internationally and with a strong claim of legitimacy domestically.

It is to China’s benefit to deal with a Malaysian government that is not perceived to be anyone’s client state. It is to the advantage of China that Malaysia has a strong voice in the Asean community and in the eyes of the world. With strong legitimacy and domestic credibility, the Pakatan Harapan government can formulate long-term foreign policies that enjoy longevity and widespread popular support.

The re-election of Tun Dr Mahathir and his pronouncement of having “no warships in South China Sea” — which I called The Mahathir Doctrine — not only gives voice anew to Asean on South China Sea but at the same time also opens up opportunities for new forms of conciliatory collaborations between Asean and China with the longer-term aim to achieve rule-based diplomacy in the region.

Dr Mahathir is not known to be pro-United States, but at the same time admittedly there is distance between Malaysia and China. For the last few years, the South China Sea has become a major concern for the world, because from the point of China, it was the then President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia that caused reaction. But for a small country like Malaysia, whether it is a US or China problem, South China Sea is our front game. We have to deal with the fallout if there is any untoward incident in the South China Sea.

Hence the Mahathir Doctrine is interesting because it is hard to find someone with his stature to say those things with certain effect. Perhaps China, and the world, can seize this opportunity to rethink about the South China Sea. We will have new opportunities to rethink Malaysia-China relations.

The four packages of Malaysia-China relations

I propose that the Malaysia-China relationship be looked at from four angles and packaged in these four “baskets” — i) Security; ii) Trade; iii) People-to-People relations; and iv) Investment. These four angles are linked and a comprehensive New Deal ‘package solution’ can provide a way forward towards mutual respect. Understanding the intricacies between these linkages can help us move the different levers as the need arises. 

Security/South China Sea: The emerging Mahathir Doctrine — forbidding foreign warships in the South China Sea — is a timely opportunity being offered to China, US and Asean. It provides a chance for all parties to reset their agenda in the region without any loss of face. China has become increasingly more assertive on the South China Sea since 2012, and the Mahathir Doctrine provides China an honourable exit and a timely occasion to soften its stance on South China Sea, and at the same time signals to the United States the resolve on the part of Asean states on South China Sea’s neutrality. Dr Mahathir’s stature as a statesman will be crucial to the reshaping of the deadlocked Southeast Asia maritime scenario. Furthermore, collaboration on anti-terrorism and combating transnational crimes would be beneficial for all parties concerned.

Trade: Malaysia-China trade relations are very broad and are not limited to infrastructure, construction and properties. Agricultural exports to China, learning from China on automation, ICT sector, tourism etc. deserve consideration and renewed commitments from both sides.

People-to-people relations: Malaysia and China’s relations go far beyond the official engagements. Track 2 diplomacy must be cultivated by strengthening ties between think-tanks, universities and retired government officials. We should look for new opportunities to exert soft power influence by enhancing collaboration on education, language, culture, sports and visa arrangements etc. Collaborations between Malaysian state and city governments with their counterparts in China should be encouraged. 

Investments: For Malaysia’s economy to move to a higher level, investments from China will be helpful. Malaysia, under Prime Minister Mahathir, now has a historical chance to encourage China to review its modus operandi when investing in small countries away from over-production dumping, towards a technology transfer and job creation process. It must be brought home to the Chinese leadership that this is the only way forward and the only path towards sustainable and mutually beneficial economic ties. The controversial projects involving railways and pipelines can be placed under this “basket” for rethinking.

Singapore-Kunming/Pan Asia Rail Link

Instead of taking a micro view on the rail links that China is involved in, it would be better to take a grand view before looking at the details. Malaysia and China may want to revisit the idea of Singapore-Kunming/Pan-Asia Railway, which Mahathir championed in his previous tenure as PM. If the Singapore-Kunming link is a reality, the strategic importance of South China Sea would decline, thus helping to cool the political temperature. It is interesting to note that when the Belt and Road Initiative was conceived, South East Asia is viewed from the maritime perspective: 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. But the land link of South East Asia shall not be ignored and should be given a fresh look.  

Having Pan-Asia Railway in mind would also show that the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and High Speed Rail (HSR) are ideas that were not thought through carefully. For me, in light of a new government in Malaysia and greater strategic clarity, it should be refashioned.

Due to the importance of trade to China, there have always been talks of bypassing the Straits of Malacca such as the Kra Isthmus Canal idea, which doesn’t make any economic sense. The promoters of East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) sold this by playing such tune to the backers in China. The economics of this project is unfeasible. It would take a maximum of three days to cross the peninsular Malaysia, and on top of that, having to carry out the extra work of unloading and re-loading goods. As this is not the Cape of Good Hope, where the size of the continent justifies the Suez Canal, we need to rethink these projects in Malaysia. It doesn’t mean that East Coast doesn’t deserve better rail services but it can be done through double-tracking and electrifying the existing Gemas to Tumpat line.

To link it better, there can even be a line from KL to Mentakab, tunnelling through the centre spine, to link to Gemas-Tumpat. In the larger scheme of things, Tumpat can also link to Thai part of the Pan Asia Rail Link.

Likewise, the passenger-only High Speed Rail from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore would never generate the sort of traffic like that of HSR between Beijing and Shanghai.

For Singapore-Kunming to work, expanding the rail network in Malaysia is certainly a good idea. But it should be one that carries goods and not just passengers, as there will never be a High-Speed Rail that is faster than flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing or Shanghai for passenger purposes. Having a freight train from Port Klang to China is a realistic alternative to passage through South China Sea.

In short, ECRL and HSR, proposed by the previous government, make no economic and strategic senses, and should be refashioned aggressively by all parties involved for greater common good of Asia.

Malaysia and China enjoy a very comprehensive relationship and the emerging Mahathir Doctrine may offer a new beginning for better future with much stronger foundation.

* This is an edited transcript from a speech by DAP Political Education Director Liew Chin Tong  at the South-South Cooperation in the New Asian Era Forum held in University of Malaysia on 10th July 2018.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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