Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government has struck a bullish tone on ties with Beijing ahead of the leader’s hotly anticipated five-day visit to China that begins on Friday.
The Malaysian foreign ministry in a statement offered a preview of what insiders expect to be a “genial approach” by Mahathir when he meets President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and other senior leaders – despite a gulf in opinion about Chinese-backed projects in the country.
Some US$20 billion worth of Beijing-linked infrastructure contracts have been suspended since Mahathir swept to power three months ago over concerns that his predecessor, the scandal-tainted Najib Razak, had endorsed them despite what critics say were “lopsided” terms.
The government has said the projects may be scrapped if the Chinese contractors do not cut prices drastically.
Beijing has said the matter is between Malaysia and the Chinese companies.
The veteran leader said in an interview with Xinhua published on Thursday that he hoped to “learn about Chinese programmes or plans for Southeast Asia, including Malaysia” during the trip.
He lauded China’s rapid economic development.
“China’s growth is much welcome to us because it means that the Chinese are richer. Malaysia is a trading nation, and we like to have our partners rich,” he said.
On strategic ties, Mahathir said Malaysia looked to Beijing to help maintain peace in the region.
“China will play a big role because it is a powerful country,” he said.
Mahathir, 93, prime minister for the second time after a 1981-2003 stint, will travel with a delegation that includes his wife Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah as well as five cabinet ministers.
Malaysia’s foreign ministry said Mahathir’s trip would “serve as a new milestone in the consolidation of bilateral ties between Malaysia and the People’s Republic of China”.
“It will set new strategic pillars to invigorate the future cooperation between the two countries, especially in the political, trade, investment, agriculture, technology and regional security realms.”
Mahathir will land in Hangzhou on Friday.
On Saturday he will tour the Hangzhou headquarters of Chinese conglomerate Alibaba Group – the owner of the South China Morning Post – as well as the offices of automaker Zhejiang Geely.
Geely is part owner of Malaysian automaker Proton.
On Sunday the premier will visit drone maker DJI’s offices in Beijing before a luncheon with Malaysian businessmen in China and a dinnertime dialogue with the Malaysian diaspora in the Chinese capital.
Mahathir is expected to meet National People’s Congress chairman Li Zhanshu and Premier Li on Monday morning, before a meeting and banquet dinner with Xi in the evening.
He departs Beijing for Kuala Lumpur at noon on Tuesday, after a visit to the National Agricultural Science and Technology Innovation Park.
There has been weeks of speculation over the trip – seen by observers as crucial to restoring bilateral ties put on an uncertain path by Mahathir’s decision to cancel the Chinese-linked projects.
A Malaysian government source said the itinerary had been “painstakingly put together” after several rounds of input from both sides and that the prime minister would strike a “very much genial tone” when he met Xi and other leaders.
Mahathir, who joined the then opposition in 2016 to defeat Najib over his alleged links to the 1MDB financial scandal, had anchored the early part of his campaign on a platform that was stridently critical of Chinese investments in the country.
Mahathir and his allies in the now-ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition had alleged that Najib had ceded sovereignty to China by being too lax in allowing Chinese investments that they deemed brought little benefit to the country.
Since his election victory, Mahathir has stressed that his antipathy towards what he deems “unfair” Chinese investments does not mean he wants to throttle the close ties forged during the Najib era. China has been Malaysia’s biggest trading partner for nine consecutive years.
In an op-ed published on Thursday, one of Pakatan Harapan’s top political strategists said the premier would push for “shuang ying” or “win-win solutions” during his visit.
“For the lack of a better word, China and Malaysia do not have to allow the errors of the past administration and the unscrupulous elements in that relationship to affect the strategic partnership of the two countries,” wrote Rais Hussin.