China premier’s visit merely ‘symbolic gesture’, despite high expectations, says Asian Studies expert

There was much pomp and fanfare during the three-day official visit of China Premier Li Qiang to Malaysia, which began on Tuesday.

Li’s visit coincided with the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, following the signing of the joint communiqué between Malaysia’s second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, and the then Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, on May 31, 1974.

While Li’s visit has been heralded by the government as “a significant milestone to be celebrated”, and one that provides an “opportunity to enhance future cooperation”, James Chin, Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, says it was nothing more than a ‘symbolic gesture’.

“A lot of people had very high expectations of the visit. However, I would not describe it as one that achieved any milestones,” said Chin.

“The visit (by Li) was to celebrate the 50-year (Malaysia-China) diplomatic relations. People should not take it too seriously. It’s simply an avenue for both nations to say a lot of nice things to each other, and say we are going to be close friends for the next 50 years.”

Chin said he was rather surprised that China did not offer Malaysia “anything special” during Li’s visit.

“The Chinese are very predictable. For very important diplomatic milestones, they will offer pandas on loan. I thought they would offer Malaysia two pandas, but they did not offer us anything with a cultural element,” said Chin.

China offering panda bears as diplomatic gifts goes back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The tradition continues, and is often referred to as ‘panda diplomacy’. Even Malaysia was offered giant pandas in 2014 – Xing Xing and Liang Liang. The pandas’ 10-year loan ends this year.

Chin downplayed news of potential investments of RM13.2 billion (from Malaysian and Chinese entities via the signing of 14 Memoranda of Understanding on June 19) as “projects that had been announced before”, or were “a long time coming”.

This he said, included the signing of the Protocol on Phytosanitary Requirements for the Export of Fresh Durians to the republic.

For the record, Malaysia was granted permission to export durian paste and pulp to China in 2011, and later, frozen durian, in 2018.

“The delay in importing fresh Malaysian durian was probably because they (China) were trying to build their own durian industry,” he said, noting that discussions on the export of fresh durians had been ongoing.

According to reports, durian harvested from Sanya in southern Hainan, began to hit the local Chinese market last year.

Chin also noted that both Malaysia and China were cautious about bringing up difficult and controversial issues during Li’s visit to Malaysia, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

“We all know how the Chinese navy has been making its presence felt off the coast of Bintulu, in an area called James Shoal. Malaysia however, has only been issuing diplomatic notes (as a sign of protest).”

Located 22 meters underwater in the South China Sea, James Shoal is within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.

Despite being located about 45 nautical miles from the coast of Bintulu in the South China Sea, China has made claims on the James Shoal based on its nine-dash line.

Chin said, a more serious question that should be asked was that if Malaysia became inextricably linked with China (economically), would China use this (economic reliance) to blackmail Malaysia in the long run?

China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 15 consecutive years since 2009. Malaysia’s total trade with China last year was valued at RM450.84 billion (US$98.80 billion), contributing to 17.1 per cent of Malaysia’s global trade.

Following the conclusion of Li’s three-day visit to Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, in a joint statement, emphasised the importance of maintaining peace, security, and stability in the South China Sea, agreeing to resolve disputes by peaceful means, through friendly consultations and negotiations. Both sides also agreed to launch the bilateral dialogue on the management of maritime issues as early as possible.

Both nations added that they would work together with other countries in Southeast Asia to fully, and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety, and looked forward to the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Chin noted previously that it was a well-known fact that Malaysia faced considerable pressure from the United States and its allies to take a more assertive stance against China, especially in the South China Sea. The US, Chin said, feels that appeasing China would simply enable China’s coercive behaviour, which could lead to a future situation in which Malaysia may not be able to make its own decisions.

In his article Malaysia Between China and the West: Don’t Rock the Boat, which appeared in the Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs, Volume 9, 2023, Chin wrote that when it came to “great power rivalry” in Southeast Asia, Malaysia was a prime example of a “middle power” trying to negotiate between China, and the West – principally led by the US.

Malaysia’s experience, he said, is not unique, as many other countries in the region have to tread a fine line in managing relations between the US and China.

However, Chin noted that Malaysia is arguably the most important country in Southeast Asia when it comes to any potential “hot” conflict between the US and China over the South China Sea, adding that any military strategist looking at the map of the region will immediately recognise that Malaysia is the only country that straddles both sides of the South China Sea.

“Thus, any conflict, military or otherwise, will affect Malaysia more than another country in the region,” he said.

On Malaysia’s ambition to be a part of BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – an association of five major emerging economies from different continents – Chin said it will serve as “another diplomatic” platform for Malaysia.

“The two most important platforms for Malaysia in the last 60 years have been Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC),” said Chin.

“But Asean has turned out to be a disaster, and OIC is a complete failure … as it does not want to play a part in resolving the Palestinian-Israel issue,” said Chin.

“BRICS will benefit Malaysia as it is made up of major emerging economies with vast economic potential. Obviously, if we can get through the front door faster than the other developing countries, then, that is an advantage.”

“Right now, there is no harm for Malaysia to have another platform to express its ‘middle power’ views. You express it to Asean now, no one listens… you express it to OIC, it’s even worse,” he said.

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