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Beware China’s great game

August 11, 2017

If the Kra Canal project becomes reality, it will have a deep impact on Malaysia’s ports, the East Coast Rail Link and the Malaysian economy.


Rais-Hussin-chinaBy Rais Hussin

With more than US$3 trillion (RM12.8 trillion) in reserves, China is not short of cash. However, Malaysia is. Our entire gross domestic product is less than US$300 billion, which is why Malaysia must deal with China with much caution and deliberation.

The goal is not to keep China at arm’s length, but to make sure that the asymmetrical relationship between China and Malaysia does not lead to an unhealthy imbalance, where China always dictates the terms and calls the shots.

Cambodia and Laos, for example, are two member states of Asean who have become exceedingly close to China. When their diplomats speak on behalf of their countries, they cannot mask the fact that they have to speak in a manner consistent with China’s interest.

Cambodia and Laos may not mind this since they have no territorial issues with China. But Malaysia is different. We have six territorial claims in our Exclusive Economic Zone that China often violates. Chinese fishing and military vessels, with or without our permission, tend to linger for a prolonged period in our seas.

We are not even sure if our Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, which comes under the Prime Minister’s Department, is keeping a daily record of these violations and submitting protests to the Chinese embassy. If not, one of them had better start doing so. Otherwise, China will cut Malaysia no slack in future.

Let’s take the East Coast Rail Link. On the surface, it seems like a win-win proposition. The project costs RM55 billion, and Malaysia does not have to repay the money immediately, given the reported seven-year grace period. The interest on the loan may even kick in seven years after the completion of the project. On all sides, Malaysia seems to be winning.

But are we?

Reports by Nikkei Asian Review show that Thailand and China are looking into the Kra Canal project. Although General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of the Thai military, hasn’t approved the project yet, prominent Thai businessmen and ex-military generals with close ties to retired general Prem Tinsulanonda, former adviser to the late King Bhumipol, have vouched their support.

The canal would span more than 128km and the total expenditure would be US$28 billion, a pittance to the Chinese if Prayuth were to approve it. And there are signs that the Thai prime minister may warm to the idea.

If the Kra Canal idea becomes a reality, the importance of Malaysia and Singapore will be reduced significantly because China will no longer be bothered by the narrow choke point of the Malacca Strait and its vessels won’t have to pass through Singapore to enter the South China Sea.

Thus, while Prime Minister Najib Razak may proclaim the East Coast Rail Link project that connects the west coast of Malaysia to the east coast as the biggest “One Maritime Belt One Silk Road” project in Asean, the Kra Canal project can veritably undercut Malaysia’s advantage.

Indeed, the high speed railway between Singapore and Malaysia may not have the necessary traffic if China can rely on a single and shorter route from the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea to the South China Sea.

By working with China, Malaysia often forgets that economic giants often come with their own designs and dreams. And they often see the interest of a smaller country as secondary to their own.

It was Tun Abdul Razak who embraced the idea that Asean would be most efficient when there was a balance of power. Malaysia has to be close to both East and West. But by being too close to China, Malaysia seems to have neglected the strategic importance of the balance of power.

As Prophet Muhammad SAAS once advised, as related by Al Tirmidhi: “Do not hate another to the point that the contempt is too deep. Do not love another to the point that the love is too strong.” In Islam, a country’s self-interest is attained by appealing to balance and moderation. Malaysia, it seems, has failed in this. Even the Chinese Malaysians are wary of a policy that is too pro-China as this would violate the principle of balance.

Rais Hussin is a Supreme Council Member of Parti Peribumi Bersatu Malaysia. He also heads the party’s Policy and Strategy Bureau.

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