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No need to over-interpret Mahathirí»s simultaneous reaching out to China and Japan

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No need to over-interpret Mahathirí»s simultaneous reaching out to China and Japan  Columnists

No need to over-interpret Mahathir’s simultaneous reaching out to China and Japan 
By Dr. Zhong Darong , Huaqiao University China

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's upcoming visit to China later this month was being described as "his first destination for official visit outside ASEAN countries." But before the tour, he landed in Japan on Monday. This made observers comment that the new Malaysian government is oscillating between Beijing and Tokyo. This reflects Mahathir's pragmatism as well as his goal of maximizing Malaysia's interest.

Right after assuming office, Mahathir visited Japan in June. He wants to learn from Japan's experience in technology and management. For instance, the nonagenarian leader said Malaysia should launch a third national car. He wishes to draw on the experience of Japan's car industry. But Malaysian opposition parties and even some members of his own team are against the idea. They believe the country does not need another national car, but should improve its public transportation system. "Because public transportation is poor, the people are forced to buy cars. Mind you, driving a car in Malaysia will cost you toll," said Free Malaysia Today.

Talking about his visit to Japan in June, Mahathir said, "We want to get a big a loan as we can from them." But later he expressed his doubts over Tokyo willing to lend at a low-interest rate. Moreover, Japanese banks have allegedly not yet given a clear response. In this backdrop, some Malaysians are questioning whether drawing closer to Japan would really help Malaysia. The economic and trade ties between Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo do not come close to those between China and Malaysia.

Some media outlets suggested that Mahathir's two visits to Japan are an attempt to balance China's influence. I don't think so. Being a developing country, Malaysia neither has the strength nor the will to do so. The country just witnessed a government change and the new administration is re-recognizing and adapting to the influence of Beijing. Any new government would do so right after assuming power. 

However, the way Mahathir is doing it is making people talk. For instance, he put the brakes on a China-backed rail project which was meant to connect Malaysia's east coast to the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and Thailand, in a knee-jerk reaction in early July. 

This may have been Mahathir's bargaining chip to persuade China to provide his country more benefits in joint programs. However, such an approach would lead to losses on both sides. 

Malaysia said China should understand the decision given the country's national debt and social conditions. But such understanding should be mutual. Kuala Lumpur should also understand the feelings of Beijing. Malaysia demands transparent, fair and healthy international cooperation. But the country should first improve its domestic investment environment, making it more transparent, fair and healthy, so as to achieve better collaboration with other nations. 

China is an indispensable part of Malaysia's diplomacy. Be it economy, politics, culture or society, the two countries are linked in countless ways. No matter which coalition government comes to power, Kuala Lumpur cannot neglect the integral ties. Mahathir knew it well, and threw his weight behind the Belt and Road initiative since he is back at the seat of power. He attaches great importance to cooperation with China. 

During his upcoming visit to China, Mahathir has expectations. He hopes to continue the traditional friendly relations as well as strengthen all-round cooperation with Beijing, so as to consolidate his domestic support. More importantly, he wishes that Beijing can understand Malaysia's current financial situation and agree to revise some contracts related to major projects, which were inked by the former government. In particular, he hopes China can lower the interest rate for Malaysia, sign more agreements with enterprises with connections to the new government, employ more local workers and offer more smart technologies to Malaysia. He also hopes that China will buy more durian and palm oil from Malaysia. 

China welcomes Mahathir's visit and should not lose confidence even if Malaysia deepens its ties with Japan. Mahathir is very pragmatic because he has only two years in office before he hands over power to Anwar Ibrahim, president of People's Justice Party. All his goals must thus be achieved within the two-year window. China should understand this while maintaining a strong will to deal with it. 

The author is director of the Research Center for Malaysia at Huaqiao University. 
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