China’s New Playbook for Malaysia

Growing US-China tensions have intensified the need for  both powers to consolidate agenda outreach and to increase resilience. China wanted to increase its assurance in food security, and in supply chain especially in critical commodities and energy, and this reflected in its dealings with Malaysia.

The visit by Zhao Leji, the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee chairman to Malaysia reflects just the continuation of China’s efforts to seek a formidable second channel assurance and back-up in its efforts to shield the country from the West’s increasing embargo and economic containment efforts.

The visit is a reflective indicator of this purpose, and Beijing also wanted to ensure local policymakers are in line with this aspiration, hence the intent and effort to increase its soft power sway and buy-in. Economic and trade importance will always be used as the main pillar and tool of engaging with Malaysia, and this is further used by this trip to reinforce this process.

It is also to send a message to regional players and the West, that Beijing will continue to depend on the current regional periphery of partners and players who are under the Chinese economic orbit to give Beijing the assurance of food and energy security.This is crucial in detaching Beijing from the vulnerabilities in real time conflict, thus jettisoning from the prospect of being held ransom by the West through economic sanctions.

It is also intended to send a message to the West that the region is still in Beijing’s ingrained playbook and backyard, and that Beijing will not be overly impacted by the West’s maneuvers to increase its deterrent and counter presence response in the region. The West and G7 will continue to seek new economic ties and strengthen current ones to push back against Beijing’s potential economic blackmail, by diversifying supply chains and markets.

In disputes with countries, especially in the West, China has shown continuous willingness to block, or hamper trade with little warning or explanation, increasing its sway and usage and might of economic blackmail. Canada and Australia being at the receiving end of this manoeuvre serve as the case in point in portraying the reality of Beijing’s economic playbook and usage of economic blackmail to force compromises. This creates a vicious cycle of traps for nations, especially in sending the message to the Global South that they will receive the same treatment should they follow the footsteps of the West.

This is also to decrease the efficacy of deterrent efforts by the west in Beijing’s potential move in Taiwan, and to decrease the costs from the fallout of a full scale invasion of Taiwan.

Xi is facing a time trap, knowing well that the path for China’s long term resilience and rivalling power rest on the agility and resilience of the combined weight and unity of the West, and not its own self capacity to  generate self-sustaining global power. Although efforts and trends have been observed in China increasingly being able and wanting to dominate the global order through the Chinese system that is independent of Washington’s role and dependence, realities on the ground and factors of sustainability of power maintenance and balanced distribution of influence, have all pointed to the inability by Beijing to achieve that.

Knowing that it cannot afford to continue this path, a simultaneous strategy of continuing to engage with the US and efforts to divide Western unity and solidify its presence and clout in the other periphery has been playing out, especially at the start of Xi’s new third term. Over the long term discourse calculations, the long game of this inevitable US-China conflict is Washington’s to lose, owing to several major parameters. Beijing will need more than growing global soft power sway and economic capital tools alone in dethroning the long held dominance by the West.

China’s rapid rise is facing an inevitable slowdown. Xi’s promise of a “great rejuvenation” is facing a great maturation. Years of expectations for China to overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy has never materialised, and pushed back repeatedly. It might very well never materialise, as the US is continuously underestimated in its resilience and economic staying power fuelled by its unrivalled fundamental pillars and stability.

The speed and scope of China’s rise in the past two decades has been destabilising, game-changing and  forcing structural adjustments in the global economic and geopolitical spheres. While some have argued that China will only be poised to achieve economic parity with the US over the next decade and not to replace it, other power parity calculations  continue to favour the US, where no other power comes close in being able to replace the ingrained presence and dominance it has and will continue to enjoy. The future fate of China’s rise and fall seems not to be in the hands of Beijing alone even as much as it wishes to, but seemingly falls on the fate of the unity and cohesiveness of the West in standing up collectively against China.

Beijing would want to capture the goodwill of the new leadership and policy approach under Anwar, made more increasingly critical in assuring Beijing’s regional pursuit of influence and geopolitical grip. The trip to China by Anwar has predominantly been framed from a positive point of view, with little room for dissenting opinions on the risks involved.

For Malaysia, it will continue to yearn for Beijing’s capital and market might, with the continuous hope for its investment in key infrastructure works, digital domain, public transportation and many other critical areas that are pivotal for Malaysia’s economic progress. The already contentious and controversial projects and issues of China’s economic  ranging from the ECRL, the Kuantan Industrial Park, the Iskandar Waterfront City and others have garnered negative public sentiments, but realities of the country’s economic dependence and vulnerabilities have consistently enabled Beijing to press ahead with new strategic usage of economic tool to project its power purpose.

KL-Beijing ties have always been underpinned by economic and socio-cultural factors, and these remain the Achilles heel for Malaysia. KL is in critical need of Beijing’s capital, investment and capacity in key areas including local transportation assets, property, digital domain, resources and areas of future interests including 5G, AI, green energy and green economy.

The potential 5G inclusion of Chinese firms including Huawei and ZTE brings about new spheres of risks to national security, as has been warned by the West. This would be used to further weaken our deterrence and defence capacity including in the South China Sea, as we will be dependent on Beijing’s goodwill in continuing these support and service in these assets, and would also make us at the receiving end of future blackmail or getting the worst ultimatum in event of a real hot war or conflict in which we might be forced to trade off our assets or to reduce our retaliatory or bargaining efforts and intensity, based on the potential blackmail or threat of the greater damage that can be done to our infrastructure from the 5G and digital grip that Beijing will have.

Malaysia would also be used as a regional base in expanding its digital ambition, should the 5G presence be upheld, to send a direct message to regional players that it has the capacity to halt the West’s attempts of digital containment.

The perceived spill over positive impact on the local employment setting, the needed technology transfer and long term economic benefits that can directly impact the local populations have been very much debatable, if past indications are to be taken. The expansion of these presence in the country on the basis of providing the spin off economic and investment, risks further engulfment of our options and to fall deeper into the overreliance on China as our sole economic saviour.

This will only invite falling deeper into the economic abyss of being beholden to Beijing’s potential economic blackmailing in favour of greater superseding security and geopolitical interests in the region, particularly the South China Sea and the subsequent implicating factors that will affect Beijing’s intent for Taiwan reunification.

It is high time for Malaysia to start a serious discourse and a free opening for debates and reevaluations on the cost benefit calculations and the risks and returns to our national security and economic vulnerability vis a vis China, and not to continue to sleepwalk into the abyss of ignorance and inevitable trap of no return.

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