PRIME Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has reaffirmed Malaysia-China foreign relations, foreign policy, as well as the countries’ trade and economic interdependencies, within the first 100 days of the Pakatan Harapan administration.
This was preceded by the new government’s foreign policy focus on Asean, Japan and the United States (US) formulated on the same pattern and emphasis adopted by the “Mahathir administration 1.0” between 1981 and 2003.
This shows that while Dr Mahathir, as Malaysia’s seventh prime minister, is heavily saddled with an enormous domestic agenda for reform, he has not neglected the country’s external affairs and its relative position in the global system.
It also reflects the government’s strategic culture in mitigating the country’s domestic vulnerabilities and national security, through regional and international initiatives.
The government’s foreign policy also bears close resemblance to that of the Mahathir administration, particularly its emphasis on political stability and economic security as its major thrust.
Malaysia’s current foreign policy also demonstrates its focus and priority on Asean, the East Asian powers and the United States as the lone global superpower in the post-Cold War era.
The continued focus on Asean was symbolised by the visit of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei to Putrajaya on May 14; followed by Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong’s courtesy call on Dr Mahathir in Putrajaya on May 19; and Dr Mahathir’s two-day state visit to Indonesia from June 29.
The government’s foreign policy consistency towards East Asia was demonstrated by Dr Mahathir’s three-day working visit to Japan beginning June 10; and his five-day official visit to China from Aug 17.
These visits also indicate that Dr Mahathir’s foreign policy focus on East Asian powers adopted by his previous administration is being retained and further enhanced.
On Aug 3, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, while on his two-day inaugural visit to Malaysia, held a discussion with Dr Mahathir in Putrajaya. This reflects that the asymmetrical Kuala Lumpur-Washington relations since 1957 are also intact.
Malaysia’s current foreign policy towards the Muslim world, members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the South-South countries is still unclear. Dr Mahathir’s new administration will definitely put these relations into positive perspective like before, especially regarding the South-South cooperation which was in abeyance since 2003.
The conduct and behaviour of foreign relations and foreign policy have evolved with the changing domestic and external variables which acted as the determinants.
These determinants, which exist at a particular time due to the emergence of specific phenomena within the framework of a state-to-state relations, consequently influenced changes in the foreign policy conduct and behaviour of states.
These changes are currently traceable in Malaysia’s foreign policy behaviour towards China. Malaysia is now using the Kuala Lumpur-Beijing diplomatic linkage and trade interdependencies to mitigate its economic vulnerabilities resulting from China’s mega projects implemented during the Barisan Nasional (BN) era.
This mitigation involves the PH government’s negotiations with the Chinese state and non-state actors involved in the above projects, to arrive at a much more equitable deal on a win-win basis.
As such, it is grossly unwise to perceive that the PH government is jeopardising Malaysia-China relations through this diplomatic effort. Additionally, it is also impertinent to conclude that Dr Mahathir’s recent visit to China has failed to secure the Chinese agreement on the above matter.
What has been done thus far is only an attempt to review the viability of those projects before deciding on whether to continue with their implementation on new and equitable terms, or to abandon them based on Malaysia-China long-term mutual interests.
The choices are such because Dr Mahathir has a crystal-clear perception that one external factor which affects Malaysia’s economic security today is China’s mega investments, allegedly agreed upon by Malaysia’s previous regime on lopsided and unfair terms.
Hence, the recent diplomatic move by Malaysia on China is an act of pragmatism to deter the existing cordial relations from affecting Malaysia’s economic security.
This is similar to Dr Mahathir’s ceaseless criticisms of the US concerning globalisation, voiced out in the last decades of the 20th century and in the early years of the 21st century.
The principle behind what Dr Mahathir was seeking from the US in those years is similar to what Malaysia is trying to secure from China today. This principle seeks no other ultimate objective except equitability and fairness in the conduct and behaviour of Malaysia-US foreign policy behaviour in the early years of globalisation, and also equitability and fairness in the conduct and behaviour of Malaysia-China foreign policy today.
In conclusion, although Dr Mahathir’s current foreign policy pattern, behaviour, emphasis and priority do not register marked change compared with his previous administration, the determining variables are influenced by the emergence of new external factors which directly affect Malaysia’s present economic security, core values and national security.
The dynamics of these external factors are evident in the current Malaysia-China relations. Dr Mahathir’s leadership image and Malaysia’s strategic culture are embedded in this diplomatic move towards China to safeguard the country’s economic security, investment viability and financial stability. Therefore, the ongoing asymmetrical small state-big power diplomacy is neither antagonistic nor confrontational. It is solely a decisive and pragmatic move for Malaysia’s survival.
The writer was a former member of parliament for Parit Sulong, Johor (1990-2004)