PETALING JAYA: China is leveraging on its East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project to gain Malaysia’s support, in an effort to counterpoise its strained relations with the US and other countries in Southeast Asia, Chinese political commentators were quoted as saying today.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that the 688 km line – planned to connect Gombak in Selangor to Kota Bharu in Kelantan with a travel time of less than four hours – has prompted speculation that it could alter current regional trade routes through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea via Singapore when it is completed in 2024.
“Since Singapore will be the chair of Asean next year, mainland Chinese observers said Beijing would be trying to ensure that Kuala Lumpur did not also pivot towards the US,” the report said.
It quoted Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, as saying that the recent cooperation between China and Malaysia signalled Beijing’s desire to reduce Singapore’s influence.
“At the moment, 70% of China’s oil and gas imports pass through the Straits of Malacca,” Ni said.
“Because of that, Singapore has been able to control China’s commercial and military access through the strait, and has used this as leverage in its balancing act between China and the US.”
The report also cited Xu Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying that Malaysia had in recent years become one of China’s closest partners in the region.
“The security cooperation between China and Malaysia will continue to deepen and Malaysia has been supportive of China on multilateral occasions,” he was quoted as saying.
“But whether Malaysia will become the next Pakistan or Cambodia remains to be seen because Malaysia values its ties with the US as much as with China,” Xu added.
At the Asean security forum in the Philippines earlier this week, Vietnam had demanded that the regional grouping put up a strong stand against China’s move to assert control over the South China Sea, including the building and occupying of artificial islands there.
The SCMP report said Beijing’s relations with Singapore also deteriorated after the city state edged closer to the US and supported a United Nations-backed tribunal last year which ruled that China’s claims over the sea had no legal basis.
At the project’s groundbreaking ceremony in Kuantan on Wednesday, Prime Minister Najib Razak had called the ECRL a “game changer” and “mindset changer”, saying it would significantly cut travel time to and from the east coast of the peninsula.
The event was also attended by China State Council vice-premier Wang Yang.
The RM55 billion rail project will be built by China’s state-owned China Communications Construction Company Ltd (CCCC).