By Alan Chan

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia--Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ti’s recent visit to Malaysia could hardly come at a worse time as the Southeast Asian country seeks to move further away from Beijing’s sphere of influence.

The two-day official visit starting July 11, more a desperate public relations stunt than a meaningful bilateral exchange saw Wang Yi meet with Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah among other officials with the usual stale and tasteless official statements being put out by both sides.

More tellingly no major investment or trade deal was unveiled, rather Wang Yi took note of “Musang King” cheesecake he was served at an official lunch made using ‘durian’ (a popular local fruit, and said China would be keen on importing more tropical fruits from the country.

“The prime minister served Mao Shan Wang (Musang King) cheesecake which is so delicious, and I am so impressed,” Wang Yi said during a Tuesday press conference alongside his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah.

How is it that the foremost economic superpower in the region sent its top diplomat to a strategic member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) only for said diplomat to comment on dessert? Was there nothing else of substance to be said?

Declining importance

Unlike previous official visits where Chinese officials would be greeted with much fanfare and grand pronouncements, this visit seemed lacking any such ‘wow’ factor. It is most telling that at a grand dinner organised 48 years of diplomatic relations as part of Wang Yi’s visit, the Ismail Sabri failed to turn up, instead his speech being read by Saifuddin.

This alone would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, with Malaysia relying on China as its biggest trade partner, not to mention billions in Chinese investments that included Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Malaysia.

Looking Westward

Malaysia signed up with the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) on May 23, joining fellow ASEAN members Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Brunei. It is notable that Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, widely seen as Chinese satellite states did not sign up with the IPEF.

Malaysia , while openly proclaiming its neutrality had been seen to be drifting towards Beijing during the tenure of former Prime Miniser Najib Razak but relations between the two took a hit when Najib lost power to a political coalition led by Mahathir Mohamad in 2018, who pledged to review Chinese projects in the country.

Mahathir did not last long in power however and his two successors Muhyiddin Yassin and Ismail Sabri have not taken an openly pro-Chinese stand. Instead both seemingly have sought greater rapprochement with the European Union (EU) and US.

South China Sea, stalled BRI enthusiasm

Increasingly colder relations between both countries have followed in the wake of numerous territorial violations by China into Malaysia specifically in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety.

Not only are Chinese vessels engaged in nearly daily harassment  of Malaysian ships in Malaysian waters, widespread illegal fishing is causing shortages in the supply of edible marine products and higher food prices, breeding resentment against China.

The National Fishermen's Association said local fishermen estimate a decline of up to 70 per cent in fishes sighted off the seas, with the catch dropping from a million tonnes a month down to about 300,000 tonnes, while a source from the the Fisheries Department attributed this to widespread illegal fishing.

Such is the fear of angering China that hardly any officials will make an open statement about the problem, but again this only results in resentment and anger at all levels. It is only a matter of time before Malaysia joins the vocal protests of Indonesia and the Philippines against Chinese illegal fishing.

But even worse than the threat to Malaysia’s food security are the various Chinese mega projects that have left Malaysia deep in debt. Of these the most well known is the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a US 11.28 billion dollar monstrosity that has been linked to environmental degradation including loss of forest cover, flooding and endangering wildlife.

The project should have been terminated in 2018 but the Mahathir government was forced to renegotiate terms instead, with the estimated cost of cancellation being over US 4.89 billion, thus perpetuating this unwanted railway’s intrusion into areas that provide drinking water to millions of Malaysians.

As experts such as University Malaya Internationalisation and Strategic Management expert Collins Chong have pointed out:

We remain rightly fearful and wary of the Chinese actions and increasing acts of impunity in the region which violate our territorial integrity and national sovereignty. Greater scramble for assurances of counterbalance measures from the West, especially Washington, has been initiated with greater urgency discreetly.

Malaysia must find the political will to put its foot down and break away from this toxic relationship and diversify its trade interests. Letting China dictate terms is certainly not a win-win.