Fallout from China Envoy’s Kuala Lumpur Walkabout

The implications of a Sep. 25 visit by Huang Huikang, China’s ambassador, to the epicenter of the Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur to cool off rising racial tensions are spreading and manifold, with what observers regard as troubling international overtones.

Domestically, the affair has demonstrated the impotence of the Malaysian Chinese Association, the biggest ethnic Chinese party in the ruling national coalition and showcased government fumbling as well.

According to some observers, it is also a demonstration to the region that China, a rising and restless superpower, will not hesitate to act to protect the interests of ethnic Chinese, wherever they happen to be – nationals or not. China is Malaysia’s second-largest trading partner and could be its biggest if goods transshipped through Singapore are counted.

Huang told local reporters that “with regard to the infringement on China’s national interests, violations of legal rights and interests of Chinese citizens and businesses which may damage the friendly relationship between China and the host country, we will not sit by idly.”

Beijing Says It’s Fine with Us

While that might be regarded as a freelance, impulsive action by an envoy worried about the welfare of members of his race, he was later backed up with a statement from Beijing, an indication that the step was hardly impulsive.

While China has long practiced – officially at least – the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” consisting of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence,” those principles are increasingly strained in the South China Sea with Beijing’s island-building campaign which is intruding on the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Vietnam and potentially Indonesia.

Huang’s action, although relatively mild and minor, is being regarded by critics as a disturbing example of the new assertiveness that was demonstrated on a larger scale and a larger stage on Sept. 24 in New York, when President Xi Jinping told the United Nations that China will contribute 8,000 troops for a UN peacekeeping standby force, giving it a dramatic new role as one of the largest forces in UN peacekeeping efforts.

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Just a week ago, China joined Malaysia for the first Association of Southeast Asian Nations joint military exercise, sending 1,000 Chinese troops. There has also been a rising Chinese economic presence, with the Guangdong provincial government announcing recently that it intended to develop Melaka, now a sleepy coastal town, into a seaport to rival Singapore and build a series of industrial parks.

Malaysian Government Waffles, Fumbles

The upshot of Huang’s trip also left the Malaysian government looking rudderless and confused in the face of what many considered an unwarranted interference in domestic politics by the ambassador. First, the foreign ministry announced it had summoned the envoy. Then Huang said he hadn’t heard from anybody.

Then it turned out that Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Minister Hamzah Zainudin, serving as deputy foreign minister to Anifah Aman, who is traveling with Najib in New York, didn’t have the authority under rules of protocol, to summon an ambassador. Eventually Huang did go to the foreign ministry but the results of the meeting remained a mystery.

Anifah eventually issued a statement calling attention to what he termed “meddling”—not by the Chinese, but by several other Malaysian cabinet ministers who “had “taken action and made statements to the press” without consulting him. The handling of the issue has left the government – with its prime minister absent to take charge – without the opportunity to make a clear statement about its sovereignty.

“There was a bit of confusion there, they talk about protocol not being followed. But there is always confusion when you summon a big power like China,” said Zaid Ibrahim, a prominent Malay lawyer-turned-politician and independent voice. “They could have handled it better. But on a country like China, you can’t blame them for that. They are probably unsure of what to do, to handle confusing signals.”

Asked if the Malaysians were intimidated by China, he responded: “Everybody’s intimidated by China.”

Race Tension Drew Ambassador

Racial tension, always a factor in the Malaysian political discourse, had been in Malaysia spiraling upwards since a Sept. 16 rally by ethnic Malays bused in from the countryside and who, it later transpired, were paid to be there, possibly by forces close to the embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been fighting to keep his job in the face of multiple scandals.

So-called Red Shirt thugs began increasing the pressure on Chinese merchants and hawkers on Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur’s most densely-packed Chinese area. An UMNO division chief named Jamal Md Yunos threatened a march into Petaling Street, ostensibly to root out fake goods, but was clearly aimed at intimidating the Chinese. At that point, Huang appeared for a stroll along the street, passing out mooncakes in honor of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The subsequent events may well have driven the final nail into the coffin of the flailing Malaysian Chinese Association, the ethnic Chinese component of the race-based national ruling coalition led by the United Malays National Organization. According to a source with ties to the community, the hawkers and traders in the area repeatedly appealed to the MCA to take action to stop the threats of violence, to be met with confusion on the part of party leaders. Some argued that it was time for the MCA to cut ties with the Barisan Nasional and Najib because of his financial and political support of the Red Shirts.

Faced with paralysis on the part of the party, the source said, the traders went to the Chinese embassy to ask for help, which resulted in Huang’s controversial walk through the area. Although subsequently Malay supremacists have threatened additional marches, there has been no action. But the dithering by the MCA, long the traditional political home of the Chinese petty merchant community, is expected to cause continuing erosion towards the more assertive Democratic Action Party.