Malaysia Is Not Pivoting to China With Najib’s Visit

By Prashanth Parameswaran / November 03, 2016 / The Diplomat

One of the unfortunate side effects of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ongoing China-U.S. rebalance has been a flood of overhyped commentary about how Southeast Asia’s ‘dominoes’ are falling to China and defecting from the United States in spite of a more complex reality (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”).

With Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s trip to Beijing this week coming on the heels of Duterte’s visit last month and a string of deliverables coming out from the visit, some have portrayed Malaysia as the latest country to snub the United States and embrace China (See: “Is the Philippines Triggering a ‘Duterte Effect’ in ASEAN?”). Furthermore, some have suggested that this dramatic shift is occurring due to a rather odd mix of reasons, from the permissive conditions Duterte has allegedly created for bandwagoning with Beijing to the opening of a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into a high-profile corruption scandal implicating Najib known as the 1MDB scandal (See: “After the Scandal: What’s Next for Malaysia”).

Though this is all great fodder for some sensationalist headlines, it is also grossly exaggerated and not grounded in reality. Those who seek to understand what is actually going on deserve to get an accurate sense of where Malaysia is both domestically as well as internationally in its alignments with both China and the United States. That means understanding several realities that extend beyond the news cycles this week.

First, Malaysia’s good relationship with China is nothing new. Within Southeast Asia, Malaysia was one of the quickest to grasp the opportunity of engaging a changing China amid a shifting geopolitical environment, becoming the first country in ASEAN to normalize relations with Beijing back in 1974 (under Najib’s father, Tun Razak, a hardly insignificant point in the bilateral relationship today).

That has continued under Najib. Indeed, even before the visit, Sino-Malaysian relations had already been on a steady, upward trajectory, with the two countries upgrading ties to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership back in October 2013 and making inroads subsequently not just on the economic side, but also on defense with the holding of their first ever joint military exercise in 2015 (See: “Malaysia, China Begin First Joint Military Exercise”). Just last year, the relationship got a significant boost with visits by both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. I could go on, but you get the point: Najib’s visit this week represents continuity, not some dramatic change.

Second, Malaysia’s relationship with China is not as cozy as it is publicly portrayed. Though Malaysia may play up the opportunities in the Sino-Malaysian ‘special relationship’ publicly, including in high-profile visits like Najib’s this week, what fleeting observers miss is that the Southeast Asian state has also long been attuned to the challenges that China’s rise pose for decades, and has been sure to both diversify its relationships as well as build up its own capabilities to the extent possible. Read more…

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