Despite initial concerns over projects deemed ‘too expensive’, Mahathir Mohamad’s Government now seems on board with Beijing’s trade plans. At a forum on economic cooperation on Thursday, Country’s Finance Minister teased a New System designed to attract Chinese Investors.
Malaysia intends to set up a special, Government helmed channel to facilitate more investment from China, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said on Thursday.
“We wish to see an increase in Chinese investment with the setting up of a system,” he said after delivering a keynote address at a Malaysia-China Belt & Road Economic Cooperation Forum hosted by the Malaysia China Business Council.
More details will be announced during his next trip to China, Malaysia’s single biggest trading partner, Lim said, adding that he hoped it would cause Chinese investment to increase.
During his keynote address, Lim said that Malaysia’s “strategic location” and competitiveness helped embed it deeply within the global supply chain, making it a key part of China’s belt & road plans to enhance global trade connectivity.
“Any country with such plans cannot ignore Malaysia, which sits in the heart of ASEAN and right in the middle of east-west trade,” he said.
Malaysia has been one of the most positive yet canny recipients of belt & road infrastructure projects, embracing Chinese investment while managing to renegotiate deals considered “too expensive” such as the East Coast Rail Link, which aims to enhance connectivity along the less developed parts of the Malaysian peninsular.
It has also thrown its support behind embattled tech and communications giant Huawei, with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad praising the potential of 5G technology and dismissing concerns of Chinese espionage.
Thursday’s forum saw speakers praise Malaysia’s strategic qualities and play down fears of so-called debt trap diplomacy from Beijing a term that refers to accusations China has lured poorer countries into taking on loans they cannot afford and will be forced to default on.
Former top trade negotiator and Malaysian Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation M. Supperamaniam dismissed what he described as “typically American” alarm, saying that countries involved in the Belt & Road Initiative would have to “evaluate financial risks” involved in each project.
“People are not that stupid. The idea that countries are going to do something that will allow them to be ultimately colonised? I think that’s overkill,” he said during a panel on trade opportunities with China.
This sentiment was echoed by Wan Latiff Wan Musa, the CEO of Malaysia’s External Trade Development Corporation, who in particular praised the ECRL project saying it would “narrow the gap of development and trade” between Malaysia’s east and west coasts.
“East coast states have long been left behind. The ECRL is as a very important project to spur trade from those states.”
At the same time, Malaysia and other belt & road partners must decide what projects have economic benefits and ensure their design and implementation are carefully thought out, he said.
“Government officials must emphasise that we must always see what is the value, what we can get out of the project. To ensure a level playing field you must instil in the mindset of Chinese enterprises that you can’t just impose on the local economy. But Chinese enterprises are willing to listen.”
Malaysia is key to China, said academic Wang Yiwei of Renmin University’s School of International Studies, as it forms “a bridge” to not just the ASEAN market, but also the Middle Eastern and European markets because of its expertise in Islamic finance and halal certification, and close ties with the West.
Also Speaking at the Forum were Huawei Malaysia CEO Michael Yuan, Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian, and Malaysia China Business Council Chairman Tan Kok Wai.