PETALING JAYA: South-East Asia should focus on its own interests and avoid taking sides in the US-China trade war, says a Chinese-American political scientist. It would be dangerous for countries in the region to take sides as either one of the superpowers could penalise the countries, said Beijing Language and Culture University Prof Dr Huang Jing.
Asked if Malaysia should do more than take a neutral stance and bring the two countries together, he said Malaysia and other countries in the region should first define neutrality, what it would not do and highlight its position that it would not take sides.
“Make sure everyone understands that. Then, you will have more healthy and productive relationships,” he said in an interview.
Deputy Defence Minister Senator Liew Chin Tong said Malaysia could play the “activist middle power role” through proactive diplomacy and advocacy, but it needed to organise itself better as a nation.
Liew said this at the Forum on Malaysia-China Relations in conjunction with the 45th anniversary of Malaysia-China diplomatic ties opening ceremony yesterday.
Huang said it was difficult to remain neutral because it was a moving target, but South-East Asian countries still had to do it.
It was unrealistic for Malaysia to bridge the US-China divide but if the two powers wanted to fight in the region, Malaysia could decide against it as “it has a strong influence in this region,” said Huang who also spoke on the US-China trade war and its impact on Asean.
Huang said Malaysia maintaining good relations with China for economic development and the United States for national security or peace in the region was also a statement of neutrality.
“If Malaysia clearly defined its position, it would serve as a broker between the two countries,” he added.
Liew in his speech said some described Malaysia’s neutral stance on the trade war as “hedging”, but he was of the opinion that “we are less transactional”.
“If Malaysia plays its cards carefully yet boldly, we can be the trendsetter in regional public opinion, just like in the case of (Prime Minister) Tun Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) speaking up for Huawei recently.“Or, in the case of the Belt and Road Initiative, the renegotiation
of deals with Malaysia post-GE14 probably encourages China to put more emphasis on financial transparency in future projects.
“Malaysia needs to understand contemporary China better and in a much deeper way,” he said, adding that Foreign Affairs Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik and himself had discussed the need to strengthen Malaysia’s research on China, the Middle East, South Asia and South-East Asia.
Liew added that this would make Malaysia a significant regional or world leader in understanding the complex world they were dealing with.
He also said China needed to radically change its approach to understand South-East Asia better.
He said if China was to emerge as a credible great power, it needed to treat South-East Asian countries well to prove to the world that its rise was not a threat to the region.
China’s Minister Counsellor Chen Chen, who read out China Ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian’s speech, said following the government change in Malaysia post-GE14 and some ups and downs in China-Malaysia cooperation, its bilateral relations were now on track.
He said China did not want a trade war, but it was not afraid and would fight if necessary.