KUALA LUMPUR: Despite the warming of bilateral relations with China, Malaysia Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah insisted that Putrajaya will not discuss the South China Sea issue on a "one-on-one basis" with Beijing.
Speaking to CNA ahead of a trip by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to China starting Wednesday (Apr 24), Mr Saifuddin revealed that the Chinese government wants to discuss the issue of safety and security in the South China Sea during the official meetings.
However, Putrajaya prefers to maintain the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) when discussing the issue with China, he said.
Dr Mahathir will be in Beijing to attend the three-day Belt and Road Summit and Forum, where trade will not be the only issue on the agenda.
“China is asking whether Malaysia can discuss (the South China Sea issue) on a one-on-one basis, (but) we still believe that we should enter discussion on South China Sea under an ASEAN framework rather than on a China-Malaysia framework,” said Mr Saifuddin.
“Tun Mahathir has been making the point that ASEAN centrality is a premium because all of us are small countries,” the minister added.
“The China Coast Guard’s boats more often than not, they are bigger than our navy vessels. It is a simple analogy. With China or any superpower, we have to take a principled stand.”
China has in the past indicated that it wants to negotiate the South China Sea issue on a bilateral basis with claimant states such as Malaysia, rather than with ASEAN as a collective entity.
Last year, ASEAN and China agreed on a single draft document that will form the basis of negotiations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
TIES WITH CHINA BACK ON AN EVEN KEEL: SAIFUDDIN
The signing of a supplementary agreement for both sides to proceed with the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) at a reduced cost, as well as the reinstatement of the Bandar Malaysia project which was terminated by the previous Malaysian government in 2017 have set a positive stage for both leaders to meet on sidelines of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) event.
Mr Saifuddin said: “When Tun Mahathir meets his counterpart Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping of China ... all will be in good spirits.”
Mr Saifuddin said China has indicated that it wants to purchase more palm oil from Malaysia through its state enterprises. Both sides are also looking at other areas of cooperation, including the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
On concerns over China’s debt trap diplomacy and whether Malaysia will end up being indebted to its northern neighbour, Mr Saifuddin downplayed the risk. He said both sides are committed to ensuring that the projects are transparent and above board.
“It takes two to tango, our experience with ECRL and Bandar Malaysia has proven that a rule-based agreement on trade and investment, including in the BRI context is doable,” he said.
“We are going to be firm and transparent as we engage each other to make sure the agreement is not lopsided. It must be done in a clean manner and corruption must be avoided at all costs.”
This will be Dr Mahathir’s second visit to China after he returned to helm the country following the historic election last May.
During his first visit to Hangzhou and Beijing last August, the 93-year-old leader announced the cancellation of several infrastructure projects including a multi-billion dollar gas pipeline project in Sabah and the ECRL.
Following nine months of negotiations, the ECRL was revived earlier this month at a cost of RM44 billion (US$10.6 billion), slashing more than 30 per cent off the initial projected cost. The financing details are still being worked out.
Under the original loan agreement, the Export–Import Bank of China was to fund 85 per cent of the project at 3.25 per cent interest rate over a 30-year repayment period.
“We would wish to have a better start (in terms of ties with China) but things have happened … We are now in a situation where we are cordial, we are like back to normal,” said Mr Saifuddin.