A new chapter with Dr M's China-Malaysia reset

Leslie Lau Managing Editor
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a news conference with China’s Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing August 20, 2018. — Reuters pic

BEIJING, Aug 21 ― In dealing with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, China would have found a very different leader from what it has become used to from Malaysia.

Many Malaysians are familiar with Dr Mahathir who is in equal measures a straight-talker who punches above his weight, and also a charmer and expert negotiator.

In his five-day official trip to China, he has offered much praise and wonder at how much the global giant has advanced technologically, gushing in particular over Jack Ma and suggesting Alibaba has much to offer Malaysia.

After talks with Premier Li Keqiang yesterday, he suggested that China use Malaysia as a technological hub for Southeast Asia.

He also suggested that his Look East policy ― which when he conceived it in the 1980s was about taking Japan as a role model ― included China as part of a greater trade partnership in the entire region.

On Saturday, Dr Mahathir also secured a commitment from Chinese automaker Geely to extend its existing partnership with Proton Holdings Berhad and start selling the Malaysian car in China and other international markets.

Geely will also allow Proton to tap its green-car technology, as well as basic vehicle platform technologies developed jointly with its wholly owned unit Volvo Cars of Sweden.

Yesterday, a number of memoranda of understanding were also signed, which saw China pledge to buy more Malaysia palm oil and even one which makes it easier for frozen durians to be exported to China.

While he has continued to talk about the lopsidedness of the deals made with Beijing and Chinese companies by Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the future of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), High Speed Rail (HSR) and other projects linked with Chinese companies have not been placed on any official agenda during his visit.

But make no mistake about it: this has all been a negotiation.

And what Dr Mahathir is offering Beijing is a clear path towards resolving the issues Malaysia has with the deals, which not only avoids any embarrassment in Beijing of being associated with a graft scandal, but also offers mutual business and trade benefits.

It is not as simple as just cutting costs or cancelling projects, but about how Alibaba and Geely will lead the way for Chinese companies to not just help Malaysia out of the hole it finds itself in post-Najib but to prosper together in Malaysia.

Dr Mahathir will hope that Alibaba and Geely will rev up a clearly flagging Malaysian economy. Yesterday he also spoke to reporters about how he was looking at how China has relatively low unemployment and suggested Malaysia would need help with its own issues.

China would also benefit from such an arrangement, too. As pointed out in a Reuters report, Malaysia is a good place to launch e-commerce initiatives and other expansions into Southeast Asia. Geely’s move to push Proton overseas also should help it service the low end of the market.

Dr Mahathir offered yesterday some optimism about how successful his approach has been. He said he believed China would be sympathetic towards Malaysia's internal fiscal problems.

The PM met with President Xi Jinping yesterday before leaving for home today.

So far China has rolled out the red carpet Dr Mahathir and his entourage. That suggests Beijing is open to Dr Mahathir's proposed reset.

Today Dr Mahathir will meet the Malaysian media before he leaves for home.

His demeanour as well as his words will offer clear signals about the success of his trip.

So far he has been all smiles, shown the kind of energy that would embarrass nearly everyone younger than him. And he has been charming.

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