Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Malaysian Anwar Ibrahim is expected to navigate between deepening economic ties with his country’s biggest trading partner and tackling thorny issues such as the South China Sea during his first visit to China as prime minister, according to officials. analysts.
Anwar will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday as part of a four-day visit that will also see him meet with Chinese business leaders and Premier Li Qiang.
Anwar’s talks with Xi are expected to focus on “concrete steps that can be taken in the areas of trade, political cooperation, corruption prevention and civilization issues,” Malaysia’s minister of affairs said on Wednesday. Foreign Affairs, Zambry Abdul Kadir.
Anwar, who arrived in Beijing on Wednesday, is also due to meet National People’s Congress Speaker Zhao Leji and leaders of the China Communications Construction Company, the contractor for Malaysia’s east coast rail link project.
Anwar, who was elected as 10th Malaysian Prime Minister in November, is making his visit amid an escalating trade and technology war between the United States and China that is complicating Malaysia’s efforts to maintain positive relations with the world’s two biggest superpowers.
China has been Malaysia’s biggest trading partner for 14 consecutive years, with bilateral trade reaching $203.6 billion in 2022, but Kuala Lumpur also has close economic and security ties with the United States – the Bilateral trade reached $72.9 billion last year – which has penalized many Chinese companies that are part of the global supply chain.
Malaysia is the world’s sixth largest exporter of semiconductors, accounting for 6.3% of the world total. Chips, essential components of everyday electronics, have been a key target of US sanctions aimed at hobbling China’s tech sector.
If Malaysia wishes to strengthen cooperation with China, especially in the technology sector, it will have to consider the possibility of US pressure and how to “navigate the delicate line of advancing technology cooperation for national interests while being able to convince both the United States and China”. that such cooperation will not affect bilateral relations politically,” Hoo Chiew Ping, senior lecturer in international relations at the National University of Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.
Further US sanctions could potentially affect some Malaysian companies that are part of the Chinese supply chain, said Ngeow Chow Bing, director of the Institute of China Studies at Universiti Malaya.
“So far it hasn’t happened on a large scale, but it’s something we have to be careful about,” Ngeow told Al Jazeera. Shahriman Lockman, director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), said Malaysia “will just have to adapt” and try to find opportunities even as US-China relations become more difficult. strained.
“Anwar knows that,” Lockman told Al Jazeera. “In China, Anwar is bound to be enthusiastic about the relationship. That’s just what we do in Beijing. After all, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the comprehensive strategic partnership between Malaysia and China. And next year is the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
For Southeast Asia, which has traditionally sought to balance its relations with the great powers, the US-China rivalry has been a blessing and a curse.
Malaysia has been among the biggest beneficiaries of trade and investment diversion, as US and Chinese companies seek to diversify their geographical exposure to trade restrictions. A 2019 report by Nomura found that Malaysia was the fourth-biggest winner in the US-China trade war, after Vietnam, Taiwan and Chile, exports of waste and scrap metal alloys, natural gas and benzol all benefiting from tensions.
China’s overall direct investment in Malaysia rose to 9.7 billion Malaysian ringgits ($2.2 billion) in 2022, up 23.5% from 7.9 billion ringgits (1, $8 billion) in 2021. The United States was Malaysia’s biggest source of investment last year, investing 43.9 billion ringgit ($9.9). bn), followed by Singapore and Japan.
“Anwar is likely to promote Malaysia as a destination of choice for Chinese investors seeking to mitigate the impact of the trade war as well as find new markets in the region,” said Yeah Kim Leng, professor of economics. at Sunway University Malaysia and Fellow. of an advisory committee to Anwar, Al Jazeera told Al Jazeera.
“Since Malaysia imports more from China than it exports, it will be a good opportunity for the prime minister to push for China to import more from Malaysia,” Yeah said.
Yeah added that Malaysia could also harness China’s rapidly evolving digital technologies to improve the productivity and competitiveness of its small and medium sectors.
Analysts suggest Anwar will be cautious about raising sensitive issues on his trip, including China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities, whose plight he has highlighted during his many years as a as Leader of the Opposition.
“I believe Anwar will take a pragmatic approach to China. As Prime Minister and no longer just an opposition leader, Anwar can no longer afford to make references of a less constructive character when he speaks. “It’s about China. It’s exactly what it is,” said Lockman of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies.
“So I don’t believe he will raise the issue of the Uyghurs, although he will likely stress the need to respect international law in the South China Sea. Anwar must think of Malaysia first.
Ngeow of Universiti Malaya said the possibility of Anwar raising the Uyghur issue in private is “pretty low” but cannot be ruled out. Ngeow added, however, that the dispute over the South China Sea – Beijing claims sovereignty over more than 90% of the strategic waterway despite territorial claims by several Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia – is likely to be raised privately and noted publicly using restricted language.
Chinese coastguard vessels have frequently sailed into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, where the Malaysian state-owned oil and gas company Petronas drills for hydrocarbons.
In 2021, 16 Chinese military aircraft approached within 60 nautical miles (112 km) of the state of Sarawak, prompting Kuala Lumpur to summon the Chinese ambassador and accuse Beijing of posing a “serious threat for national sovereignty and flight safety”. The Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur said at the time that its planes were exercising “freedom of overflight within the relevant airspace”.
Hoo, from the University of Malaysia, believes it will be crucial for Anwar to discuss the South China Sea issue during his trip. “One of the main issues is to avoid the inevitable clashes at sea between coastguards and to ensure that incidents such as the PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force) incursion into Malaysian maritime airspace do not breed more in a private conversation,” Hoo said.