Will ties with US, China impact GE14?

A RECENT talk organised by Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman's Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Social and Policy Studies spotlighted two sets of bilateral relationships – Malaysia-US and Malaysia-China – and their possible impact on the forthcoming 14th general election (GE14).

Speaker Dr Heng Pek Koon, assistant professor and director of the Asean Studies Initiative, School of International Service at American University in Washington D.C., centred her talk on two overarching issues.

First, how will this country's relationship with the US and China help advance Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak's two major aspirations – to realise Malaysia's geopolitical, security and economic objectives and to strengthen Barisan Nasional's electoral position in GE14?

Second, despite Pakatan Harapan's longstanding focus on domestic electoral issues, how will the different coalition members – Parti Keadilian Rakyat (PKR), Parti Amanah, Parti Pribumi and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) – frame Malaysia's relationship with these two superpowers to attract more voters?

While relations between Kuala Lumpur and Washington during the Obama and Trump administrations in military cooperation and counter-terrorism initiatives remain strong, the biggest change is President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

In investment, more than 20,000 American companies are located in Malaysia while 7,834 Malaysian students are studying in the US, compared with 6,200 Malaysians pursuing their education in China, Professor Heng said.

The opening of a Xiamen University branch campus in Malaysia is big news, Professor Heng emphasised. Malaysia is the location of Xiamen's first overseas university and China's first overseas university, she pointed out. Trump has not mentioned Malaysia in his tweets and there have been no new directives from Washington to the American embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

US Ambassador Kamala Lakhdhir has said Malaysia is not affected by the Muslim travel ban imposed by Trump on Muslim-majority countries. Lakhdhir also indicated Malaysia is close to qualifying for the US Visa Waiver Programme, a move initiated by the Obama administration. Among Asean countries, currently only Singapore and Brunei enjoy visa-free access to the US.

While the US Department of Justice's probe into Malaysian-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) is still continuing, Trump has not made corruption a major issue in his administration's foreign policy, Professor Heng pointed out.

He suggested 1MDB's pressing need to meet repayment deadlines on its massive borrowings provided an opening for China to step up its presence in Malaysia.

State-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp (CGNPC) paid RM9.83 billion to acquire a 100% stake in 1MDB's Edra Global Energy Bhd in November 2015. Including debt assumed by CGNPC, the final price tag exceeded RM17 billion, an article by New Straits Times said.

One month later, China Railway Construction Company teamed up with Malaysian-owned Iskandar Waterfront Holdings to buy a 60% stake in a 1MDB property project, Bandar Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, for RM7.4 billion.

In May this year, the Malaysian government terminated the Bandar Malaysia deal, allegedly because the joint venture failed to comply with key terms in the agreement; an allegation disputed by the joint venture.

Jumbo investments have helped the Middle Kingdom to leapfrog over other countries to become a top investor in Malaysia while ensuring China companies are well placed to secure the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) contract, Professor Heng said. South China Post newspaper estimates the HSR project could cost RM50 to RM60 billion.

Questions Professor Heng raised include:
How will Malay voters view Beijing's expanding economic, political and strategic influence in Malaysia?
Will negative sentiment towards China affect inter-ethnic relations in Malaysia?
Will the South China Sea dispute with China become an electoral issue?
Will improved investment and trade relations with China help the MCA to win more seats in GE14?
Will China's One Belt, One Road policy – labelled by Professor Heng as the Belt-Road Initiative (BRI) – contribute towards this country's economic growth?
Will BRI benefit Malay and non-Malay entrepreneurs, small and medium-size businesses and workers?

Noting China's proposed involvement in several mega Malaysian port projects, what are China's strategic plans for investing in anchorages along the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, Professor Heng questioned.

China's investments include a deep-sea port in the RM43 billion Malacca Gateway project, the RM200 billion Carey Island port cum industrial city venture, the RM30 billion Bagan Datoh energy port including a pipeline to a new port terminal in Bachok and the US$12.5 billion Kuala Linggi international port.

Although policies initiated by Washington and Beijing could impact this country politically and economically, local issues may be more decisive in determining which party Malaysian voters cast their ballots for in the GE14, Professor Heng conceded.

Opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. She can be contacted at siokchoo@thesundaily.com