By Dennis Ignatius
China’s ravenous appetite for Malaysian infrastructure assets has resulted in yet another multibillion ringgit deal. In early January, a RM6.3 billion deal to redevelop and expand Penang Port was signed between two Chinese port operators (Shenzhen Yantian Port Group and Rizhao Port Group) and local partner, KAJ Development, a relatively unknown reportedly state-owned company incorporated in 2001.
According to press reports, the project would increase the port’s ship handling capacity to 100,000 ships per year.
Dominating the transport sector
The Penang deal comes on the heels of KAJ Development’s RM30 billion Malacca Gateway Project with another Chinese conglomerate, Powerchina International Group. The Gateway project includes extensive land reclamation and the development of what is expected to be the biggest port in the region.
Barely 55 km away from the Malacca Gateway project, work has begun on the RM12.5 billion Kuala Linggi International Port project, funded by China Railway, Port & Engineering Group. When completed, Linggi port will become, according to a company statement, “the world’s preferred shipping hub in the Straits of Malacca” offering port facilities, storage and transshipment of crude oil and petroleum products and repair and bunkering facilities.
Incidentally, according to press reports, construction has gone ahead despite objections that the project could well be an environmental hazard.
Not to be outdone, the Port Klang Authority is now planning to build another giant port on Carey Island which is expected to cost RM200 billion. According to reports, the transport ministry is in talks with China Merchants Group to finance the project.
On the east cost, another Chinese company, Guangxi Beibu International Port Group already owns a 40% stake of Kuantan Port Consortium and is investing billions to double the port’s capacity.
China is also a key investor in Sarawak’s Samalaju Industrial Port project.
At this rate, and given China’s already sizeable investments in our railway infrastructure, China will soon be the dominant player in Malaysia’s transportation sector.
Quite apart from the obvious security implications, China’s massive investments in ports and railways have also raised a number of concerns which have yet to be adequately addressed.
How much port capacity, for example, do we really need bearing in mind that we spent billions developing the Port of Tanjung Pelapas (making it one of the largest container ports in the region) and that not all of our ports are operating at fully capacity?
And how will other major port developments now being planned along the Malacca Straits, such as the mammoth Tuah project in Singapore and the China-funded Tanjung Sauh port in Indonesia’s Batam island impact overall capacity?
It certainly looks like this whole port building frenzy has gone off the deep end, especially as no convincing argument has been made that such a significant increase in port capacity is even warranted.
Without credible feasibility studies and greater transparency, these projects could well end up like the Petroleum Hub project which was taken out of service in 2012 after the government had spent more than RM100 billion on land reclamation, costs which Malaysia’s long suffering taxpayers are now having to shoulder.
It is also unclear what the actual financial arrangements are for many of these Chinese projects and what kind of concessions and guarantees Malaysia has had to offer. That some of these projects involve secret negotiations and secret agreements with companies that don’t appear to have much experience or which have been blacklisted by the World Bank, only adds to concerns about control, ownership, costs, viability and the potential for corruption.
And unlike earlier infrastructure projects where local companies retained significant oversight and decision-making authority, projects with China invariably end up with Chinese companies in charge of management, design, procurement and construction. Even the workers come from China!
Whatever happened to all our national policies about equity, local participation and transfer of technology?
At the end of the day, it is hardly the kind of “equal, mutually beneficial, win-win” situation that the Chinese embassy here likes to brag about.
OBOR or bodoh?
The other thing about many of these Chinese projects is the constant reference by Malaysian politicians and businessmen to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Suddenly, it is no longer about Malaysia’s national development goals or priorities but about whether or not it is relevant to OBOR.
It is perhaps a testimony to China’s increasing power and influence that many of our political and business leaders are now gamely parroting the Chinese line about how great and magical OBOR is and how fortunate we lesser mortals are to receive Chinese loans, Chinese technology and Chinese expertise to help build OBOR-related infrastructure.
What they don’t see or don’t want to acknowledge is that through clever financing arrangements, China is in fact getting us to pay for the infrastructure that it needs to establish economic primacy in the region. OBOR is primarily about China’s strategic national objectives; whatever benefits to Malaysia are purely incidental.
In the absence of a critical and in-depth assessment of whether these OBOR-related projects genuinely serve Malaysia’s interests and are worth the costs to Malaysian taxpayers, it would be ‘bodoh’ to acquiesce to it.
The geopolitical element
And let’s not be unmindful of the geopolitical considerations as well. Will we see Malaysian ports, for example, being integrated into the Chinese Navy’s regional infrastructure to support its growing naval presence in the region?
While the government is coy about the kind of naval access that has been given to the Chinese Navy for obvious political reasons, port calls by Chinese naval vessels are increasing. Two Chinese submarines, for example, quietly docked at Kota Kinabalu port recently while Chinese warships now regularly use other Malaysian port facilities.
Of course, naval vessels from other countries regularly berth at our ports, and in itself is no cause for alarm. However, only China is aggressively pursuing territorial claims against Malaysia. For that reason alone, caution is called for. Does it make sense for us to facilitate the very naval force that is intruding into our waters, harassing our fishermen, laying claim to our reefs and islands and gathering data to support those claims?
There are also growing concerns about the massive residential and commercial development projects that are being built with Chinese capital.
The RM100 billion Forest City project, for example, one of two being built by Chinese conglomerate Country Garden, will reportedly house more than 700,000 people in a development that will include office towers, parks, hotels, shopping malls and an international school.
Meanwhile, China state-owned Greenland Group is building office towers, apartments and shops on 128 acres in Tebrau, Johor, while Guangzhou R & F Properties Co. has begun construction on the first phase of Princess Cove, another mixed development along the Johor coast, with hotels, offices, parks, shopping malls and clubhouses.
In Kuala Lumpur, China Railway Group (CRG) will be developing the mega Bandar Malaysia project which is expected to cost between RM160 – 200 billion. Bandar Malaysia will host the world’s largest underground city together with shopping malls, indoor theme parks, a financial centre, residential and commercial units as well as the RM8.3 billion regional headquarters of China Railway.
CRG is also involved in another RM2.1 billion project in Ampang to build 7,000 residential units as well as commercial and retail outlets. In keeping with the management practices of most China-based corporations, CRG has been appointed the main contractor with sole responsibility for monitoring, managing and supervising the day-to-day construction and operations of the project.
Reports suggest that these massive residential and commercial developments in Malaysia are being marketed mainly to PRC nationals who wish to work, reside or holiday in Malaysia. Country Garden, for example, has been aggressively promoting its Forest City project in China; it is already the 11th most popular investment destination for Chinese home buyers on Juwai.com.
In addition, relatively cheaper living costs, affordable private medical facilities, a (mostly) smog- free environment and proximity to both China and Singapore, make Malaysia a preferred retirement destination for middle-class Chinese. China’s ageing population (240 million over the age of 60 by 2020) makes for a huge potential market that Chinese developers are hoping to exploit.
If the expectations of these China-based developers are realized, we could be seeing more than a million PRC nationals living in Malaysia within a decade.
Malaysians must ask themselves whether it would be desirable to see a huge influx of citizens from just one country establishing foreign enclaves here. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that these colonies could soon evolve into exclusive, semi-autonomous zones serviced and managed by PRC nationals for the benefit of PRC nationals.
What impact will this have on the social, cultural and political fabric of our nation? How will it affect property prices? How will any downturn in the Chinese economy influence the local property market? How much of the related infrastructure costs of these projects are being borne by Malaysian taxpayers? And what kind of concessions are being given to these property developers?
A fatal combination?
Viewed from almost any perspective, therefore, Malaysia’s burgeoning economic, political and military relationship with China ought to set off alarm bells across the nation.
The combination of a rising power with global ambitions backed by an unlimited stash of cash buying up strategic infrastructure assets, on the one hand, and a local political elite bent on staying in power at all costs tethered to cronies more interested in profits than patriotism, on the other, could prove a fatal one.
Even in the best of circumstances, it would be simply too risky to allow any one country to dominate our economy and control critical infrastructure networks the way China is now set to do. It gives China too much power and influence in the affairs of our nation and it leaves us too indebted, too exposed to a country whose intentions must be considered with some circumspection.
How far will China go to protect its position?
One thing we can be sure of, though, if history is anything to go by: the more China invests in Malaysia, the more China will be tempted to intervene and meddle in our affairs to protect its investments and ensure its strategic position is not jeopardized.
Indeed, China has already begun to do so.
In a statement just this week, the Chinese embassy lashed out at opposition leaders and others for questioning the government’s policies towards China, accusing them of having ulterior motives and instigating hatred against China and warned that “China will not allow anyone to jeopardize the mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation between China and Malaysia.”
Amazingly, the Embassy also dared to presume to speak for Malaysian Chinese when it suggested that such actions by the opposition would not earn them the trust of the Malaysian Chinese community.
Clearly, the Chinese embassy now feels it has the right to threaten our politicians, inveigh against those who raise questions about China’s investments and inject itself into what is essentially a domestic discussion.
Such brazen interference in our domestic affairs will only get worse. How far will China now go to stifle domestic opposition and criticism to its increasing role in our nation? Will it work behind the scenes to prop up local pro-China leaders in much the same way as the CIA did in other countries?
The most pressing foreign policy challenge
Tellingly, while the Chinese embassy grows bolder, many of our own leaders remain silent despite blatant acts of interference in our domestic affairs.
In the early years of our relationship with China, our security agencies were extremely concerned that Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community might sell out to China; who would have thought we would end up in situation where many of our politicians and officials would be so blinded to the challenges that China now presents or worse still, resign themselves to the inevitability of some sort of Chinese domination?
One minister, for instance, recently remarked in his blog that “it is futile trying to resist China’s great march forward just like it was futile to resist Western colonialism 500 years ago.” He also said that China is buying up assets all over the world and that is something that “Malaysia needs to accept or else get left behind and perish.”
Let’s be clear: this is not about trying to stop China from rising or about shunning Chinese investments but about ensuring that we don’t get colonized again, about making sure that China does not get to the point where it controls our economy and is able to dictate policy as it already does in some neighbouring countries.
Whatever it is, Malaysians must not be lulled into a false sense of complacency by all the sweet talk of mega contracts, grandiose promises of prosperity and jobs or the effusive pledges of eternal friendship for that matter.
China is no different from any other big power and we would do well to be wary when dealing with it.
As the late Tun Ghazali Shafie, arguably the best foreign minister we’ve ever had, was fond of reminding us at Wisma Putra: small countries on the peripheries of a big power don’t have the luxury of taking anything for granted.
At the very least, we owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to have a national debate on this, the most pressing foreign policy challenge we now face as a nation. And the Chinese embassy would do well to butt out of it.
Dennis Ignatius is an FMT reader.
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