Analysts of China-Malaysia ties are still trying to get a handle of how Putrajaya, under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for the second time, views Beijing after shelving costly projects under its One Belt, One Road initiative.

Though bilateral ties were formed in 1974 and remained warm under Dr. Mahathir’s first 22 years as prime minister, the 93-year-old statesman criticised Putrajaya’s huge investments in the projects under his predecessor Najib Razak, which Pakatan Harapan said contributed to the national debt ballooning to RM1 trillion (S$333.6 billion).

After the May 9 elections last year, the new government under Dr. Mahathir said it would cancel the RM83 million East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), as well as oil and gas pipelines in Sabah and Malacca, citing exorbitant costs, “lopsided” agreements and opaque bidding processes.

Under the initiative envisioned by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Malaysia is a vital country in South-east Asia for its geographical advantages as part of a 21st century “economic and maritime Silk Road” launched in 2013 and dubbed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

However, Dr. Mahathir’s remarks about China since coming to power do not quite match China’s own understanding of itself as a modern superpower entering a new stage of development.

Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce vice-president Joseph Lim told The Malaysian Insight that Dr. Mahathir’s views of China seemed to be stuck in the 1990s, given his use of terms such as “colonisation”.

The prime minister visited China last August, during which he warned against “new colonialism” and called for fair trade practices.

“When Dr. Mahathir met China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Mr. Li asked him if he rejected the development brought by One Belt One Road, but Dr. Mahathir answered that he did not want “new colonialism”.

“I thought it was strange that Dr. Mahathir said that. Even though it probably did not mean anything, it can be taken wrongly,” Mr. Lim said.

Anbound Research Centre (Malaysia) member Fung Vun Ket said Dr. Mahathir’s visit to the Geely Automobile City in Hangzhou, where he praised Geely’s high manufacturing standards, seemed to show that the Prime Minister’s impression of China was stuck in the 1990s.

Part of the suspicion, however, could be due to the lack of understanding about the BRI, including China’s reasons and goals for the project and how it is supposed to benefit other countries.

The perception now, five years since Mr. Xi launched the initiative, is that locals are paying a price for China’s cultural and economic dominance in their countries.

Projects under the BRI have been described as “debt traps” by the Western media following Sri Lanka’s handover of Hambantota Port to Beijing after failing to service debts.

The same view is prevalent in Malaysia, where nationalistic political rhetoric pushes the view that the country has become China’s colony due to its economic investments.

Mr. Lim said he found communication lacking on China’s part to promote and obtain buy-ins from citizens of other countries, as witnessed at forums he had attended on One Belt, One Road.

He said miscommunication and wrong assumptions are bound to occur due to minimal interaction between workers brought in under these projects and locals.

For example, he said, it was not widely publicised that state-owned train manufacturer CRRC Corporation Ltd recruited Malaysian employees and sent 80 percent of them to China for additional training. Mr. Lim said;

They returned to Malaysia with enhanced skill sets, allowing technology transfers that will directly benefit Malaysians.

Perceptions of monopoly over contracts by China-owned companies should be viewed alongside other Chinese investments in the country as a whole and not in a “vacuum” that can be taken out of context, he said.

Mr. Lim said another strength of Chinese companies is their fast completion of projects, saving both development and labour costs.

“China has the capability to construct quickly. Chinese contractors will not work with a completely Chinese staff and will include local contractors and even local labourers,” he said.

For Mr. Fung, the suspicions towards China come in part because of its failure to employ “soft power” the way Japan has done in Malaysia.

The idea behind using soft power is to get a foreign population’s positive response to another culture by building up familiarity, much like the way many Malaysians are influenced by Korean culture.

China has only been using its own media organisations to counter attacks on BRI by the Western media and has not used other soft means to promote goodwill.

He said China also fails to answer criticism in the Western media and responds by mostly propping up the country. As a result, One Belt, One Road did not reach the people’s understanding. The soft-power approach is lacking and it leads to the people’s perception that Chinese investment is a form of colonisation.

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