The strong economic ties between Malaysia and China traditionally went hand in hand with a conciliatory approach to their low-level territorial conflicts in the South China Sea.
That & # 39; silent diplomacy & # 39; begins to undo, however, while Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's new government is re-examining and re-establishing the terms of its bilateral relations with Beijing
Since the Mahathir election in May, the Southeast Asian country has emerged as a new vortex of resistance to China's growing economic impact and growing strategic influence on the region – one that other claimants of the disputed maritime area will undoubtedly follow closely .
The region is already looking ahead as Malaysia takes the lead in redefining its economic relations with China, in the light of the growing concern that its outward investments, particularly large card infrastructure projects, could become sovereignty-crippling debts.
A senior Malaysian official said to this writer that the government is expected to surrender $ 40 billion for Chinese infrastructure projects previously agreed under the $ 1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), due to concerns about corruption, viability and debt .
That is more than the previously reported US $ 22 billion, including US $ 20 billion for the canceled fast East Coast Railway Link (ECRL) and for $ 2 billion in pipeline projects.
Mahathir caused more investor wrinkles at the end of August when he announced a government ban on foreign buyers for China's 10 billion dollar real estate project in the southern city of Johor, which was largely focused on overseas Chinese.
But Malaysia is also concerned about the possible dominance of China from the nearby South China Sea, a strategically crucial waterway that travels as much as US $ 5 trillion in annual trade.
China has claimed 90% of the maritime area via its so-called nine dashed line chart. An arbitration tribunal in The Hague ruled that the allegations of the card were unfounded in a July 2016 ruling that Beijing refuted and ignored.
Malaysia controls a number of land features in the Spratly chain of islands in the sea, including the artificially fortified and well-developed Swallow Reef. The reef offers state-of-the-art tourist resorts, a modern airport and permanently stationed military personnel from the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN).
One of Mahathir's senior advisors who requested anonymity told Asia Times that the non-American leader is aware that modern-day China is much more assertive, if not hegemonic, than the poorer, far-reaching version that he had during his previous 22 as the national leader from 1981 onwards -2003.
Known for his uninterrupted independence, Mahathir has so far retained his previous "unbound" foreign policy doctrine, which not only saw him critically about the West by calling US President Donald Trump an "international bully", but equally skeptical about China under outward-facing President Xi Jinping.
In a sharp turn of the largely Chinese rhetoric of its Southeast Asian peers, Mahathir described the current leadership in China as "prone to totalitarianism" and too sensitive to "turn around".[ing] increase "to" muscles [its] affect many countries in Southeast Asia. "He has described China's thrust in the region as" very worrying ".
Previously, Mahathir regarded China as a much-needed counterpart of what he saw as the neo-imperial behavior of America in the region, according to the same adviser. Today, however, the roles are reversed, says the advisor, with the US increasingly in need of a balance between China's growing assertiveness in the region, including in the South China Sea.
Despite his personal reservations to Trump, the Malaysian leader is expected to meet his US counterpart in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in September. He will seek to explore stronger strategic cooperation with the US to reduce China's dependence on China, the consultant said.
The intimate diplomatic ties of the Najib government with China came with stronger defense cooperation, including through the purchase of Littoral Mission Ships (LMS) in 2016 and other advanced naval assets.
At the same time, Beijing lent Najib a financial lifeline when his government struggled to cover debts related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund that he had created and is now struggling to defend against massive corruption and money laundering.
In return, the government of Najib remained silent about the growing invasion of China in the waters of Malaysia and the traditional fishing grounds, to the great annoyance of the inhabitants in the coastal areas of the country.
With all this in full view, Mahathir Najib accuses the country of selling to China during the campaign path. Now it is precisely this excessive tendency towards Beijing that its new government aims to rebalance by strengthening its strategic ties with the West and other external powers.
His previous meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 3 took place in the context of the expansion of bilateral strategic cooperation amid shared concerns about China. In recent years, the US Navy has regularly visited Malaysian ports and it is known that the two countries are investigating deeper maritime security cooperation.
Mahathir is likely to continue such efforts, if not increase, although peacefully given domestic sensitivity to military cooperation with the West and his loyal "independent" foreign policy mantra, says the advisor.
As a Muslim majority country, Malaysia has in the past criticized Western policy in the Middle East, in particular the US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the large-scale military assistance to Israel in the middle of the siege of the Palestinians in Gaza, and globally against the global war on terror, which has spread over the last two decades to the jungles of Southeast Asia.
An overt strategic turn to the West would not only nullify Mahathir's fervent unbound doctrine, but also resent the conservative sectors of Malaysian society that had held him as a tried and true defender of ethnic Malaysian identity and Islamic values.
The geostrategic meaning of Malaysia lies in its position on the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, two critical waterways that are crucial for the import of energy into China and trade with the rest of the world.
For decades, Beijing has feared that the US and its allies are destroying the Chinese economy in a conflict scenario using bottlenecks such as the Malacca Strait. China had hoped to at least partially overcome the so-called "Malacca dilemma" by investing in large infrastructure projects along the strategic ports and coastal areas of Malaysia.
Now all those development plans of several billions of dollars are under the government of Mahathir.
However, Mahathir has made it clear that he is not looking for a counter-alliance or containment front against China per se, and remains averse to taking a more militaristic stance in the South China Sea, says his adviser. "They are more powerful and we can not fight them," the Malaysian leader told CNN earlier this year.
Nonetheless, Mahathir has been rhetorically opposed to China's recent militarization of the disputes, which he said risked regional security at risk.
He emphasized the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the area, and said he is perfectly pleased that "all … ships, even warships, pass by." But he remains opposed to naval ships that are "stationed" in the disputed sea. "It's a warning for everyone, do not create unnecessary tension," he said in a recent media interview.
Mahathir & # 39; s Malaysia wants a fast freeze of the escalating disputes and is especially concerned about conflicts of power in the light of the recent decline of the US Navy in cooperation with regional and European allies through the freedom of navigation operations (FONOP & # 39 ; s) in the area.
The Malaysian Senator and Deputy Minister of Defense Liew Chin Tong told this writer on 27 August that the new government "is not concerned about the expansive claims of China in itself, but is instead concerned about their willingness to [fully] to implement them in the future at the expense of other claiming states.
"We do not want to make China an enemy, but we do not want to be seen as a customer state," said the Malaysian defense official, accusing the predecessor Najib Razak of being overly dependent and respectful of Beijing.
Crucially, Malaysia is also looking at ways to strengthen cooperation with fellow Southeast Asian states, including the Philippines, an ally of the US, and Vietnam, which is particularly alarmed by the relentless recovery and militarization of China in the South. – Chinese Sea.
At the request of Mahathir, the three Southeast Asian states are considering a more coordinated diplomatic position on the disputes and are investigating various confidence-building measures to de-escalate tensions in the area, say Malaysian officials.
It is not immediately clear what specific measures the Malaysian government can recommend to protect its interests and to prevent conflicts in the South China Sea. What is clear, however, is that the new government of Mahathir has left the country's earlier silent diplomacy for a more proactive and vocal stance towards balancing the rise of China.