East Coast Rail Link (ECRL): Malaysia’s Mahathir Warms up to China

-Signs up to Xi’s second belt and road summit

Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad has become the first world leader to confirm his attendance at China’s second Belt and Road Initiative summit this April, in a move analysts say is aimed at reassuring Beijing of his commitment to the project, China Morning Post has reported.

They say the Malaysian prime minister’s second visit to the country since coming to power in May 2018 will do much to assuage any doubts about the bilateral relationship that have crept in since his newly minted administration cancelled a series of Beijing-backed multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects agreed under his predecessor Najib Razak.

At a press conference on Friday to announce his attendance at the summit, Mahathir stressed that Malaysia “valued” its relationship with China.

“I’ve already said I support the [belt and road],” Mahathir said. “When [China and Malaysia] established relations [China] was a very poor country. Very backward. But now it has made tremendous progress and of course when China makes tremendous progress this influences the relationship between Malaysia and China.

 “We find that China is now the biggest trading partner for Malaysia. It is also a big investor in Malaysia. Our policy is of course to retain and improve the relationship between Malaysia and China,” he said.

Analysts say the trip to the upcoming summit – which will be hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping – will serve much the same purpose as Mahathir’s five-day trip to Beijing last year, which helped to quell speculation over his perceived anti-Beijing hawkishness.

“It is not much of a surprise that Mahathir will attend this meeting in Beijing. He has always stated that Malaysia continues to support

[the belt and road]

despite the problematic projects during the Najib era, and his visit to Beijing will reinforce that message and assure Beijing,” said Ngeow Chow Bing, of University Malaya’s Institute of China Studies.

Mahathir has maintained that the decision to cancel the projects – which included two natural gas pipelines worth US$2.3 billion – was taken because they were too expensive or not in Malaysia’s best interests, and was not meant as a snub to Beijing. However, some critics have doubted these claims, noting his pre-election rhetoric, which occasionally attacked Najib for his perceived pro-China slant.

The announcement of Mahathir’s appearance at the April summit comes amid heavy speculation regarding the fate of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a multibillion-ringgit China-backed railway project.

The ECRL had originally been identified by Mahathir as one of the Chinese-backed projects that should be rethought, but since then his government has given out a series of confusing signals regarding the project’s fate.

In late January, Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali said the project would be cancelled due to the high annual interest the government would incur – at least 500 million ringgit (US$122.8 million) – although he said Malaysia still welcomed “all forms of investment from China [on] a case-by-case basis” depending on his country’s “financial capabilities”.

Soon after, however, the administration backtracked and Mahathir said that “no final decision” had been made and that the two nations were still discussing the matter.

“Without the ECRL,” said Ngeow, “there is a sense that there is not much [belt and road] cooperation anymore between Malaysia and China, which is not exactly true as other belt and road-related projects such as the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park are still ongoing. Mahathir’s visit hence needs to reassure Beijing that Malaysia stays committed to the belt and road. Although one can’t rule out the possibility of an announcement of new big projects during the visit, this is unlikely given the fiscal situation claimed by Malaysia’s government.”

However, he said the ECRL could prove a thorny issue if it were still not settled by the time of the summit.

“Billed as the flagship belt and road project during Najib’s era, its complete cancellation would certainly cause China to lose face. There is a possibility that during the visit Mahathir will make some announcement about the ECRL.”

Analysts say a government decision on the rail link is unlikely before the conclusion of this year’s Lunar New Year celebrations on February 19.

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