PETALING JAYA: China’s investment in several Malaysian ports should not be cause for concern despite the emergence of a report suggesting it has built a strategic global network, says a security and defence analyst.
Thomas Daniel, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said Malaysia would not be straying from its non-alignment policy by allowing the Chinese to invest in some of the country’s ports.
He was commenting on a Washington Post report about China’s ownership or control of ports and terminals at nearly 100 locations in 50 countries across every ocean and continent, through investments made by state-owned companies.
Many of these terminals and ports are located in strategic waterways and include those at Khalifa Port in the United Arab Emirates, Djibouti Port in the East African nation, and Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port.
According to the report, although the stated purpose of the investments was commercial, the United States and its allies were concerned about possible military implications.
Thomas said it would be difficult for Malaysia to fully develop large ports, such as the Kuantan Port and the now-revived Melaka Gateway, without some degree of foreign investment, regardless of where the money came from.
“These have been subject to a range of allegations,” he told FMT.
However, the bigger issues were more about the projects themselves, including their viability, the transparency in administrative approvals and the impact on the environment, he said.
Thomas said strategic concerns could not be ruled out, given that ports are strategic assets.
“I think the bigger question here is whether we are strategic about our partners and the degree (of control) one has and the kind of investment we allow in.”
He said this was why Malaysian policymakers have for decades leveraged engagement with multiple foreign powers to uphold the country’s strategic interests, autonomy and options.
“For example, while China has been our biggest trading partner for over a decade, large chunks of our foreign direct investment (FDI), especially in critical and high-tech sectors, still largely come from the West, in particular, the US.”
“So there is a delicate balance here that Malaysian policymakers carry out, but it would be concerning if this delicate balance was disrupted by domestic or external factors.”
Azmi Hassan of Akademi Nusantara said he believed Chinese investment into Malaysian ports does not present a threat to the country’s defence and security.
“As a sovereign country, Malaysia still has the final say on allowing any ship into its waters, regardless of who has a stake in a port.
“The more important issue is ensuring freedom of navigation in waterways like the South China Sea and preventing encroachments into our exclusive economic zone (EEZ),” he said.
Malaysia has in the past protested China’s encroachment of its EEZ by vessels from the Republic in the South China Sea.