Malaysia’s Najib Tilts to China

China’s gift for buying foreign political leaders has scored another triumph with the visit to Beijing of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose ingratiating tone of remarks in China at least give the impression that Malaysia’s foreign policy has veered farther away from its traditional informal alliance with the US.

In the end that may prove illusory. But for now it further undermines the US position in the region at a time when factors ranging from President Duterte’s personal grudges against America coincide with the damage done to the US image, and to that of western liberal democracy in general, by the tragic comedy of the presidential election process.

It was already obvious that China’s earlier bailout of 1MDB by buying assets from it at inflated prices came with a political price. Malaysia is thus paying doubly for the survival of Najib and the UMNO elite, which has been the recipient of much of the money which disappeared from 1MDB – and was not spent by family cronies such as Jho Taek Low and Najib’s stepson Reza Aziz on partying and by wife Rosmah on luxury baubles.

Najib went out of his way to irritate the US by taking Riza Aziz along with him to China while Jho Low is a fugitive from US justice and Riza Aziz has been shown to have acquired millions of dollars of unexplained assets. It was striking how the Malay elite loves to play in the US, spending public money and buying western luxuries but then goes cap in hand to China for protection from the US justice system when it catches up with their abuses.

An article by Najib published in the China Daily and elsewhere read as though written in Beijing rather than by his own public relations people in KL. Thus on the issue of the South China Sea, where China claims some islands and vast areas of sea within Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, it was written: “We firmly believe that overlapping territorial and maritime disputes should be managed calmly and rationally through dialogue in accordance with the rule of law and peaceful negotiation”.

Quite what “rule of law” was being referred to was obscure as there was no mention of the Court of Arbitration and its ruling (which favors Malaysia as much as the Philippines) but is an ominous echo of China’s position that other countries “were given no say in the legal and security infrastructure set up by the victors of the Second World War” (though pre-Communist China was one of the victors and did have a say.)

Likewise there was condemnation of foreign intervention in the affairs of sovereign states and respect for different systems. Najib appeared to have forgotten the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia’s clear interference in Malaysia’s internal affairs in respect of the Chinese minority.

As a symbol of an apparent shift of loyalties, Najib announced the purchase of “littoral mission” ships from China and agreement to hold bilateral military exercises. How far all this goes however is difficult to say. Malaysia for now has no plan to end its quiet but longstanding military cooperation with the US. It is still a member of the US-sponsored Trans Pacific Partnership – though that is now stalled anyway.

For sure more official Chinese money will pour into Malaysia for port and railway and other infrastructure projects, partially making up for weakness in domestic private investment and the sustained exodus of local ethnic Chinese capital. It may be bizarre to see Najib ingratiating himself internationally with China while simultaneously doing the same with Islamist and Malay extremist elements at home. But the logic is obvious: both prop up Najib’s hold on power.

The needling of the US through playing footsie with China is both revenge for the US role in exposing 1MDB and Najib’s pals Jho Low and Riza Aziz and a threat that he will go further if the US doesn’t put a stop to the investigations.

Cosying up to China also goes well with his irritation with Singapore for its role in exposing 1MDB and investigation of private banks in the city which have been laundering the ill-gotten funds of UMNO politicians. This handily fits with China’s criticisms of Singapore for standing firm on the UN Law of the Sea and its application in the region.

Indeed, Singapore shows how despite Duterte and Najib (and Trump) China is not having things all its own way in the region. Indonesia is happy to take Chinese money but there is no sign President Joko Widodo is backing off his maritime defence posture. It is even to have join patrols with Australia despite their long history of mutual irritation. As for Vietnam, the September visit of its premier to Beijing may have calmed waters temporarily but there is zero indication of any change in Vietnam’s determination to uphold its island and sea rights. Indeed, the visit was more of an attempt by Beijing to limit Vietnam’s enthusiasm for the US than a sign of Hanoi weakness.

What happens next will be partly determined by the US election. A Trump victory would cause widespread consternation, except perhaps with Duterte if only because no one knows what if anything is in his head. Clinton talks of a more forceful US policy but her opposition to trade deals like TPP will do nothing to prop up US influence. It remains to be seen if campaign rhetoric is reflected in actual policy. Meanwhile much of the goodwill that Obama gained for the US has been dissipated by the election process.

As for Malaysia, the conduct of Najib has been a reminder to those with a sense of history of how western imperialism was aided by the greed and personal power interests of some Malay sultans who preferred fighting among themselves or doing deals with foreign capital to defending their states.