People factor key to maintaining strong Malaysia-China relations


  • Nation
  • Monday, 02 Jun 2014

WHEN we think about China, we almost always think about its massive scale.

It is the world’s most populous country and the third largest in total area. These have fuelled the country’s economic boom, which in turn has boosted the global economy. So much so that the worries that China’s expansion streak will screech to a halt are a staple of news headlines.

As such, when Malaysia and China commemorated on Saturday the 40th anniversary of their diplomatic ties, it is easy to view the event primarily as an affirmation that the two countries will continue to work together via trade and investments for mutual benefit.

And yes, when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak visited China last week, much of the discussions between him and the Chinese leaders did focus on trade and investments.

For example, Malaysia and China have targeted to push bilateral trade to US$160bil (RM514.6bil) within five years from US$106bil (RM340.9bil) last year.

In addition, Najib raised the point that the ratio of Malaysia’s investments in China to China’s investments in Malaysia is six to one. Thus, he was glad to report that the Chinese leaders have agreed to encourage businesses in China to consider Malaysia as an investment destination.

However, we should not forget that last October, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Malaysia, the two countries agreed to upgrade their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

There was a time when countries were happy with plain old strategic partnerships.

These days, such partnerships have to be comprehensive too, which means the countries are supposed to collaborate in just about everything. This definitely includes people-to-people interaction.

This seldom gets the attention it deserves because its successes cannot easily be measured in ringgit and sen. Yet, it is a pivotal factor in maintaining good relations between countries.

The communique that Najib and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed on Saturday bears some evidence of this. Among the things that Malaysia and China agreed upon is to “promote mutual understanding between their peoples and consolidate the China-Malaysia traditional friendship through exchanges between the academic, cultural, media and sports communities”.

“Both sides agree to encourage more of their nationals to visit each other’s country and enlarge the number of tourists,” said the two nations.

Another indication of the role of personal relationships is the fact that China intends to have consulates-general in Penang and Kota Kinabalu while Malaysia wants to set up one in Nanning. The aim here is to “further facilitate people-to-people ties between the two countries and promote bilateral exchanges and cooperation”.

It is fitting that part of the activities that tied in with Najib’s trip was a visit to Beijing by 100 Malaysian youths led by Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin. The entourage was drawn from three spheres: politics (Barisan Nasional Youth leaders), business (corporate bosses below 45) and social (including members of youth groups, university students, media representatives and artists).

This is the second time Malaysia has sent a delegation of young people to China. The first was in 2012 and later that year, China reciprocated. According to Khairy, China’s next youth delegation to Malaysia will be in Kuala Lumpur in September.

“Having exchange programmes among young people is important because we need to forge people-to-people links and this among the best ways to do so,” he said.

“It’s also an opportunity to showcase Malaysia’s multi-cultural aspects and to build a positive perception after the MH370 incident.”

Indeed, the disappearance of the plane – 154 Chinese were among the 239 people on board – has shaded Chinese sentiments about Malaysia although government leaders insist that the mystery will not impair bilateral ties.

Khairy said the Chinese youths who met the Malaysian delegation appreciated China’s relationship with Malaysia and they remembered well Malaysia’s bold step in 1974 to establish diplomatic ties with China.

“At the same time, I get the sense – and I myself have raised this with them – that although the relations at the government level are good, there should be some emphasis on the perception among the people,” he added.

Said SUPP secretary-general Prof Dr Sim Kui Hian: “The 40 years of relations between the two countries is not just based on government-to-government initiatives. It’s about the people.

“People-to-people ties are the roots of the tree. Policies can change and states can have disputes but it’s the people-to-people relations that build a lot more understanding. The bond is very strong in people-to-people relations.”

Dr Sim was part of the delegation accompanying Najib to China. His father, the late Tan Sri Sim Kheng Hong, was the SUPP representative who followed Najib’s father, Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, to China in 1974 in a visit to establish diplomatic ties.

Najib said Xi and Li received him warmly in Beijing. It could even be said he was accorded special treatment. Xi, for example, hosted a private dinner for Najib, which is not customary. Li had earlier been scheduled to go elsewhere on Saturday morning but upon Najib’s request, he allocated time to attend the anniversary celebration at the Great Hall of the People.

It appears that the Chinese leaders also relate to Najib as the son of the man who was brave and visionary enough to befriend China despite much trepidation within Malaysia and the region. This is a fine example of the power of people-to-people relations.


Related stories:

Najib hails meaningful and successful China visit

Firm on negotiated solution

MCA lauds Najib’s personal supervision of special panel


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