Malaysia talks to India over palm curbs as wider trade spat looms

16 Jan 2020 / 15:55 H.

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia is talking to Indian government and trade officials in a bid to resolve concerns over New Delhi’s new palm oil import restrictions, Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok said today amid a trade spat between the countries.

India’s Hindu nationalist government has repeatedly objected to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaking out against recent policies of New Delhi that critics say discriminates against Muslims. Malaysia is a Muslim-majority nation.

India, the world’s biggest buyer of edible oils, last week placed curbs on imports of refined palm oil and has informally asked traders to stop importing all kinds of palm oil from Malaysia, the world’s second biggest producer and exporter of the commodity after Indonesia.

Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing sources, that New Delhi could also restrict import of petroleum, aluminium ingots, liquefied natural gas, computer parts and microprocessors from Malaysia. However, no action has so far been taken.

“This year, we foresee more challenges in some of our major markets,“ Teresa Kok, who is in charge of the palm oil portfolio, told an industry conference, referring to India’s new palm import rules.

Kok said the Indian high commissioner, the ambassador, in Malaysia was one of the people she was in touch with over the issue.

“Important for us to engage them further through diplomatic channels and stakeholders,“ she told reporters on the sidelines of the event. “We will continue to engage.”

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is vocal on issues concerning the Muslim world, ignored a question from Reuters on the spat with India on the sidelines of a separate event today.

On Tuesday, he said Malaysia was concerned about the palm oil curbs but indicated he would continue to speak out against “wrong things” even if it costs his country financially.

Last month, he criticised India’s new religion-based citizenship laws that critics say is loaded against Muslims, and its policies in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir that is also claimed by Pakistan.

India was Malaysia’s biggest buyer of palm oil in 2019, with 4.4 million tonnes of purchases. In 2020, purchases could fall below 1 million tonnes if relations don’t improve, Indian traders say.

To make up for the potential loss, Malaysian officials say they are trying to sell more to countries such as Pakistan, the Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

But replacing a massive buyer like India won’t be easy, and there have been calls for both countries to talk it out putting aside any “personal or diplomatic ego”.

The other concern for Malaysia is that following the signing of an initial trade deal between the United States and China on Wednesday, China could buy more soy oil from the United States and less Malaysian palm oil. — Reuters

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