Malaysia-China Bilateral Relations

Malaysia  established  diplomatic  relations  with  the  People’s  Republic  of  China  two  years  after  US  President  Richard  Nixon’s administration normalised relations with China in 1974. Prior to that, Malaysia established a trade council with Beijing. Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak, made an executive decision to follow the US and extend a hand of friendship to Chairman Mao Zedong. Despite Malaysia’s own domestic communist insurgency threat, Malaysia became the first democratically  elected  Southeast  Asian  nation  to  normalise  relations  with  communist  China.  Malaysia’s  approach  regarding  Malaysia-China  relations  was  a  two-pronged  strategy.  One  was  to  address  Malaysian  ethnic  Chinese  with  family  roots, while the other was to neutralise communist terrorists who still wanted to turn Malaysia into a communist state. Malaysians  of  Chinese  descent  were  questioned  by  the  Malays  on whether they were loyal to Malaysia or to ancestral China. This was all resolved when China did not recognise dual citizenship along with Malaysia and China politically denouncing the Malayan Communist Party.

The  communist  threat  in  Malaysia  formally  ended  in  1989,  when the leader of the Malayan Communist Party, Chin Peng, signed a peace treaty with the Malaysian government in Hatyai, southern Thailand. This coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union and collapse of communist regimes worldwide. It also marked the end of communist threats in Malaysia. That same year, Malaysia refrained from officially criticising China’s  handling  of  the  Chinese  people’s  protest  at  Tiananmen  Square  for  an  open  and  democratic  society  post-Cold  War  and remained largely silent about the situation. In some ways, China took note of the countries that did not interfere in Chinese affairs. One of ASEAN’s pillars is not meddling in domestic politics. Malaysia remained careful and maintained its status quo in managing China, bilaterally and multilaterally.

In  the  maritime  domain,  however,  Malaysia  takes  a  slightly  different  approach.  Apart  from  Malaysia,  ASEAN  member  countries that are active in bringing the issue of maritime disputes of the SCS into the ASEAN Summit are Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, and to some extent Indonesia. These have been  a  thorn  in  these  nation’s  internal  politics  and  China’s  ambiguous  policy  approaches  to  the  ASEAN  countries  challenging the former’s claims. China has so far been successful in  its  divide  and  rule  approach.  Vietnam  and  the  Philippines  have  traditionally  been  more  vocal  towards  China,  to  which  China has responded aggressively, as opposed to Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry’s (Wisma Putra) quieter and more diplomatically channelled protest acts. Though Malaysia joined hands with Vietnam in 2009 to protest China’s claims, China is more lenient  toward  Malaysia  than  it  is  towards  Vietnam  and  the  Philippines.

This paper will not go into detail about China’s actions but rather focuses on Malaysia’s reaction and position. Claims and counterclaims to the disputed maritime territory pose a vicious  cycle.  Among  others,  these  issues  are  discussed  at  the  Yokosuka Council of Asia Pacific Studies (YCAPS), the ISEAS, Malaysia Institute of Defence and Security (MiDAS) under MinDef  Malaysia,  the  Maritime  Institute  of  Malaysia  (MIMA)  under  the  Ministry  of  Transport  Malaysia,  and  the  RMN  Sea Power  Center  (PUSMAS  TLDM).  All  of  these  institutes  have  provided insightful speakers to the discussions and debates. Central to the discussion is the question why China is acting ambiguously toward Malaysia, despite Malaysia’s diplomatic approach  toward  China.  Malaysia  has  found  its  own  way  to  deal with China’s power aspirations in the region. This is due to Malaysia’s age-old understanding of Tianxia (Chinese: 天下),  which literally means “(all) under Heaven” during the Malacca Sultanate-era. A historical Chinese cultural concept symbolising either the entire geographical world or the metaphysical realm of mortals, which later became associated with Chinese political sovereignty.[1] While Malaysia has recognised that it is a small nation, larger and more powerful nations may not need to conquer or exterminate it entirely. As indicated earlier, Malaysia became the first democratically elected ASEAN-member  government  to  normalise  diplomatic  relations  with  China  in  1974.  The  40th  anniversary  of  diplomatic  relations  was  celebrated  with  great  fanfare  in  2014.  Even  the  Chinese  proverb  “Those  who  drink  the  water  must  remember  those  who  dug  the  well”  was  used  to  promote  Malaysia-China  relations.  It  became  a  symbol  of  the  personal  bond  between  Malaysia’s  and  China’s  leaders.  This  balancing  act  has  managed to keep China more lenient towards Malaysia than other ASEAN countries. However, in the maritime realm of SCS, things are very different. Malaysia has repeatedly advised China to exercise restraint. It adapted different channels available to respond to China’s coerciveness and aggression, including downplaying  China’s  actions  on  national  news  and  pro-government  media.  Despite  Malaysia’s  efforts,  China’s  power  assertion  in  the  SCS  has  not  halted  from  Malaysia  claimed  territories. Another point raised by Malaysian scholars is the government’s  and  policymakers’  hedging  and  balancing  act,  which will be addressed in the next chapter.

[1]   Hayton, Bill. 2020. The Invention of China. Yale University