The ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ between Malaysia and China that happened in 1971 was a marked departure from the policy on China set by Tunku Abdul Rahman. While Tunku blamed China for its support for the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), Tun Abdul Razak saw it necessary to engage China to end its support for the CPM.
When Mahathir took over the premiership in 1981, he placed importance on economic development and not so much foreign policy. Three years earlier, Deng Xiao Ping had also placed China under a process of economic modernisation. However, although there was an increase in bilateral economic and trade exchanges with China, the percentage of that compared to the overall trade declined. In the 10 years since the beginning of formal diplomatic relations, economic and trade exchanges between the two countries was at 3.5 percent of Malaysia’s total trade. This number fell to just 1.5 percent in 1984 (Stephen Leong, “Malaysia and the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s: Political Vigilance and Economic Pragmatism”, Asian Survey, Vol. 27, No. 10, October 1987, p.1114).
In a speech at Qing Hua University, Beijing in November 1985, an alarmed Mahathir said: “My own country`s bilateral trade with China has in fact declined since 1980 and this is despite the widely held view that China`s modernisation would increase the opportunities for trade and economic links.”
Mahathir saw China as a very important partner that could help the modernisation of Malaysia’s economy so much so that the delegation that he brought with him on that first visit in 1985 was huge. In a speech given during that visit he said:
“I have brought with me a large delegation of leading Malaysian entrepreneurs and businessmen. It is my hope that with your cooperation they would be able to fully explore further opportunities for trade and economic cooperation.”
Mahathir made six other visits to China between 1993 and 2001, a display of the importance of China in his economic policies. A year after he began his administration, trade with China stood at USD307 million. This jumped to USD1.4 billion ten years later. A year before he stepped down, it was at USD14 billion.
Mahathir led another large trade delegation to China in 1993 and 1994 with China returning the favour towards the end of 1994. Of China’s communist ideology, Mahathir in his speech during the 2nd Malaysia-China Forum in Beijing in August 1996 said:
“China has come in for special attention. For years it had been condemned for being Communist and isolationist, practising a close centrally planned economy. Now it has opened up and has adopted a version of the universally acclaimed market system. Instead of being welcomed to the fold, it is looked upon with fear and suspicion. The World Bank has sounded the alarm by predicting that China will emerge in the 21st Century as the greatest world economic power. And fear of China has mounted.”
Hence, we can see that it has never bothered Mahathir that China is a communist country, and working with China does not turn a country into a communist one. China was so important to Mahathir that he wanted to see his proposal for a regional consultative group, namely the East Asia Economic Group (EAEG) take flight with US and US-leaning countries accepting China. This, however, was not to be. To his dismay, Japan refused as it was closely linked to the USA which had formed APEC; South Korea refused as the EAEC proposed by Mahathir would have placed Japan at the centre of the organisation.
During the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98, the Chinese Government assumed a highly responsible attitude. It provided assistance to all the affected countries including Malaysia within the framework of the IMF arrangements and through bilateral channels. The decision of not devaluating the Renminbi, for which China paid a high price, assisted ASEAN countries affected by the crisis to pull through.
During his visit to China in August 1999, Mahathir thanked China in his speech:
“China`s concern for the well-being of East Asia in the financial crisis has been most laudable. The regional economies and the global community at large greatly appreciate China`s decision — despite strong pressures — not to devalue the Yuan. Beijing`s cooperation and high sense of responsibility has spared the region of a much worse consequence. Renminbi devaluation would almost certainly result in a new round of currency devaluation by the affected economies.”
The crisis had brought both Malaysia and China closer together, both Mahathir and China promised better cooperation. In June 1999, Malaysia and China agreed to invest around USD2.5 billion to develop a Trans-Asia Railway from Singapore to Kunming passing, without doubt, through Malaysia. Mahathir welcomed China to play an active role in the railroad construction.
When Premier Zhu Rongji visited Malaysia in November 1999, an overwhelmed Mahathir said in his speech:
“We appreciate the decision of the PRC to participate in the pulp and paper projects in Sabah. I understand that this project is valued at RM4.3 billion is the PRC’s largest investment in the region. We hope as many PRC companies will try to explore the investment opportunities available in Malaysia.”
However, it is so wrong now for China to help Malaysia build the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL). Every single investment by China in Malaysia is seen as ‘selling away our rights and sovereignty’ but it was not the case back then.
I often wonder if Mahathir is jealous that Najib Razak is doing better, or if he (or his agents) is not getting a slice of the cake? He seems to be the only one making noise about China’s investments in Malaysia although, at less than three percent of the total FDI, is at the 10th place of the largest Foreign Direct Investments in Malaysia – the largest being Singapore. Why is China being made the scapegoat?
Which is why DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang has been silent on the issue of Forest City for the longest time – as he can see how it benefits his parliamentary constituency, very much unlike Mahathir whose hatred for Najib surpasses the needs of his political partners and voters.
During a conference on Assessing ASEAN’s Readiness by Country at the Napalai Ballroom, Dusit Thani hotel in Bangkok on 17 September 2013, the nonagenarian said:
“We have been trading with China for almost 2,000 years. China was very big, most developed nation in the past, they could have conquered us but they didn’t. They came and lived in Malaysia but they didn’t conquer us. And I don’t want to be in any confrontation with China. China is a good trading nation with 1.4 billion people.”
And suddenly after 2,000 years of peaceful co-existence, just because Najib Razak is now the Prime Minister of Malaysia, the China that Mahathir so loved wants to invade us?
That, to me, sounds blatant hypocrisy.