GEORGE TOWN: The increasing rivalry between a fast-rising China and a relatively declining United States is posing a big challenge to Malaysia, which is friendly to both.
Former diplomat Redzuan Kushairi said China was becoming increasingly more assertive, as evidenced by the massive illegal construction of military bases on the disputed islets and rock formations in the South China Sea and its stance towards other countries on the South China Sea issue.
The US, on the other hand, appeared to be “declining”. However, its military strength and its elaborate system of alliances and military bases around the world would ensure it remained the most powerful nation, Redzuan noted.
Also, the economic strength of the US remains prominent, with the US dollar being the world’s currency of choice despite all the problems facing the country.
“But like Malaysia and other countries, foreign policy begins at home. On top of the problems pointing to the trend of a declining US is President Donald Trump, who is a huge problem both in the US and in its foreign policy,” he told FMT.
Redzuan listed several of Trump’s actions, such as the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the pursuit of a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), withdrawal from the Paris International Climate Change Agreement, an America First Policy, support for certain ultra right-wing political parties in Europe, uneasy relations with European countries and the North Atlantic Trade Organisation (Nato), the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and withdrawal of a billion dollars to United Nations’ funding as punishment for the overwhelming UN general assembly votes against Trump’s Jerusalem decision.
“All these actions are tantamount to the US abandoning its role as the world leader,” he said.
Redzuan said the situation in Southeast Asia and the health of Asean would, to a large extent, be determined by the China-US rivalry, and Malaysia would be under increasing pressure to make adjustments in the country’s foreign policy, a difficult exercise under current circumstances.
He noted that in 2017, Malaysia had made efforts to try and balance its relations with both the US and China.
On the whole, efforts were made to maintain close relations with the US, basically in economic and trade relations, diplomatic relations with the visit of the prime minister to Washington DC, and close military ties, including participating in joint exercises and port calls by US navy vessels.
However, Redzuan said China’s assertive policy on the South China Sea, and its aggressive cheque book diplomacy of using its economic power to push huge contracts and, in some cases, investments, are putting a strain on Malaysia’s balancing act.
“What is becoming a big controversy in Malaysia is the lack of transparency in the big projects involving Chinese companies, where many are state-owned enterprises, and the speculation on whether there is a connection between the need to cover up the huge financial hole left behind by 1MDB, coupled with the need for a lot of money to finance the crucial 14th general election.
“Malaysia has every reason to be more careful in accepting China-financed projects and investments because the reality is China has a record of corrupting leaders and governing parties.
“Very often, projects are over-inflated to cover for kickbacks and financial incentives, and all requirements for transparency, accountability and good governance are thrown aside,” he cautioned.
Key examples were the RM55 billion ECRL rail project, as well as the Forest City project in Johor Bahru, the continuing controversy surrounding the Tun Razak Financial Exchange, the construction of expansive ports in Kuantan, Melaka, Port Klang and Penang, and most recently the sale of two big pieces of land in Port Klang and Penang.
“The fear is that Malaysia would very soon be saddled with huge amounts of debts, which will make us heavily indebted to China and end up compromising our sovereignty and render us unable to conduct an independent foreign policy.
“When a country is so dependent on a single country, especially when that country aspires to dominate the world and treat Asean as its sphere of influence, Malaysians have every reason to be wary and extra careful,” he said.
Redzuan was asked to comment on the year that has been, in terms of Malaysia’s foreign relations.
The unresolved 1MDB crisis
The 1MDB debacle continued to be the big elephant in the room, Redzuan said, noting that the unresolved crisis relating to the debacle had affected Malaysia’s conduct of foreign policy.
He said that criminal and civil cases were being pursued in a few countries, and some of those involved in crimes associated with 1MDB had been prosecuted in Singapore, with units of two banks forcibly closed.
Redzuan, a former ambassador to Uzbekistan, said the year 2017 had been an eventful year, especially in Malaysia’s relations with China, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Asean, cooperation between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to combat terrorism in the southern Philippines, as well as the Rohingya crisis.
He stressed that foreign policy was all about safeguarding and promoting Malaysia’s core interests – sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and enhancing the country’s diplomatic and economic interests, along with the national image in the international community.
“It has a lot to do with the domestic situation."
“Foreign policy begins at home, and a weak and problematical situation at home will have an important impact on our foreign policy,” he said.