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Belt and Road: Malaysia's Critical Assessment of ASEAN-China Relations

Malaysia must carefully examine the terms and conditions of any loans it receives from China, to ensure that they are sustainable and not detrimental to the country's long-term interests.

Photo by KUA YUE / Unsplash

As China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) gains momentum, Malaysia and other ASEAN countries must engage critically and strategically in this massive infrastructure development strategy. The BRI, spanning across continents, presents both opportunities and challenges for Malaysia's economic and geopolitical relations with China.

In this article, I try to delve into the nuances of Malaysia's engagement with the BRI and explore how the nation can navigate this new era of ASEAN-China relations to maximize benefits while safeguarding its national interests.

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The Belt and Road Initiative is a massive infrastructure development strategy initiated by China in 2013. It aims to revitalize the ancient Silk Road trade routes and foster economic integration between China and participating countries.

The initiative has gained momentum over the years, attracting more and more countries to join. The BRI comprises a network of roads, railways, ports, and other infrastructure projects, spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa, and aims to connect China with the rest of the world.

Malaysia is strategically located within ASEAN, making it a critical node in this grand vision. The BRI presents Malaysia with opportunities for enhanced trade, investment, and infrastructure development.

The Belt and Road appeal

Over the years, Malaysia has enjoyed growing bilateral ties with China, marked by increased trade flows and foreign direct investment inflows, predominantly in sectors such as manufacturing, infrastructure, and tourism. However, Malaysia must tread carefully in its engagement with China under the BRI initiative, as it poses both benefits and challenges for the country.

One of the key benefits of Malaysia's engagement in the BRI initiative is the potential for increased economic growth and development. The initiative could provide a significant boost to Malaysia's infrastructure development, particularly in the areas of transportation, energy, and communication.

It could also lead to increased trade opportunities with China, potentially boosting Malaysia's exports and providing access to China's vast market.

However, there are also potential risks associated with Malaysia's engagement in the BRI initiative. One of the main concerns is the possibility of debt traps. China has been criticized for extending loans to participating countries that are difficult to repay, leading to them being trapped in debt and China gaining control over strategic assets.

Malaysia must carefully examine the terms and conditions of any loans it receives from China, to ensure that they are sustainable and not detrimental to the country's long-term interests.

Another concern is the potential geopolitical implications of Malaysia's engagement with China. The BRI initiative has been viewed by some as a way for China to expand its influence and power globally, potentially at the expense of other countries. Malaysia must ensure that its engagement with China under the BRI initiative does not compromise its sovereignty or national security.

Malaysia and the ECRL

Malaysia has been one of the many countries that have benefited from China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which includes the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and the Melaka Gateway Port. While these projects offer potential economic advantages and job creation opportunities, they also raise concerns about debt sustainability and over-reliance on Chinese financing.

The sheer scale of these projects has made Malaysia cautious about the potential risks associated with these investments. The country must maintain a delicate balance between harnessing economic gains and mitigating potential risks, ensuring long-term viability and avoiding undue dependency on China.

The government must ensure that the benefits of these projects are distributed evenly across the country and that the costs of servicing the debt do not become a burden on the state.

Moreover, the BRI's impact on regional integration and competitiveness within ASEAN holds crucial implications for Malaysia. As China expands its economic footprint through infrastructure connectivity, Malaysia needs to leverage these developments to strengthen ASEAN as a regional economic bloc.

This requires careful coordination and collaboration among ASEAN member states to ensure mutual benefits and a level playing field, while mitigating potential challenges that may arise from asymmetrical power dynamics.

Malaysia and China

Critical to Malaysia's engagement with the BRI is the development of its infrastructure to accommodate increased trade flows. Ports, railways, and logistics facilities need to be expanded and modernized to enhance connectivity with China and other BRI nations.

However, Malaysia must have sustainable policies in place, ensuring that its infrastructure priorities are aligned with national development plans, rather than solely driven by the demands of BRI projects.

Sustainable development (green economy) will be crucial to make the most of the benefits of ASEAN-China engagement under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The BRI offers a significant opportunity for Malaysia but also presents a complex challenge to its relationship with China. By carefully evaluating the situation, Malaysia can take advantage of the potential of the BRI while also safeguarding its national interests, as well as the interests of ASEAN as a whole.

As Malaysia moves forward, proactive engagement, strategic planning, and a strong commitment to responsible and sustainable development will be essential for creating a mutually beneficial relationship between ASEAN and China in this new era of the Belt and Road Initiative.