The story behind Anwar’s China trip

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has concluded his first official visit to China and is now back in Malaysia. Nevertheless, news reports continue to flood the local media, attesting to the humongous impact of his China trip.

Anwar has not only brought back RM170bil in investment pledges, but also friendship from China as well as consensus in bilateral, regional and international issues of interest to both countries, including bilateral development blueprint, South China Sea, world peace, One China policy, etc. Leaders of both countries have also reiterated their willingness to respect and understand each other’s position.

Such understanding helps elevate Sino-Malaysian relationship to new highs, while deepening trade and investment cooperation as well as promoting more frequent exchanges between the people, government officials, businesses and politicians from both countries in a bid to reinforce friendship.

Many tend to ask why Anwar visited Beijing first and not the United States?

Well, Anwar originally planned to visit China only in late April, but as he had been invited to deliver a keynote address at the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan on March 30, he had to bring the visit forward to avoid having to fly to China twice within a short span of time.

On March 14, I was invited to a dinner which was also attended by Local Government Development Minister Nga Kor Ming, ACCCIM representatives, Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia Ouyang Yujing, and several local Chinese businessmen with Tan Sri title, who would accompany the PM to China later the month.

During the dinner, Nga asked ACCCIM to invite its members to join the PM’s China delegation. The response was overwhelming, with 369 eventually signing up.

We cannot deny that Nga has played a pivotal role in ensuring the resounding success of Anwar’s visit to Beijing.

The minister also expressed his hope that Malaysians irrespective of race would benefit from an influx of Chinese investments in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Malaysia and China next year.

Unfortunately, Nga might have overlooked some of the bureaucratic “sensitivities” and etiquette in the midst of hectic planning, hence the unhappiness of some which he will now need to try to defuse with his own wisdom.

As for the local Chinese businessmen accompanying the PM to China, they didn’t get to catch a glimpse of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the newly minted Premier Li Qiang. They may have to wait until the president’s visit to Malaysia next year for this rare opportunity.

Most of these businessmen did not waste their time waiting for the start of the Malaysia-China Business Forum at China World Hotel on April 1, as they took the opportunity to meet their clients, friends and potential partners, to renew their pandemic-disrupted relationships.

The 15-member ACCCIM council delegation led by its president Low Kian Chuan also paid a courtesy visit to China Economic Cooperation Centre under the International Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. ACCCIM even made a last-minute arrangement for Anwar to meet up with some 50 local business leaders on the evening of March 31.

Among the leaders attending the dialogue were Transport Minister Anthony Loke, International Trade and Industry Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz, Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abd Kadir, Nga, Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing, Science, Technology And Innovation Minister Chang Lih Kang, and MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong.

Changes have been made to Anwar’s travel plans. Initially he and his team had explored the possibility of him visiting Peking University but was eventually changed to Tsinghua. There was also a plan for him to visit the Niujie Mosque for the Friday prayer, but this was again changed to Dongsi Mosque.

The oldest in the Chinese capital, Niujie Mosque was built in 996 AD and is one of the most established mosques in the world, while Dongsi Mosque was built in 1356. Talking about history and architectural aesthetics as well as the Muslim lifestyle of the locality, Niujie should have been the first choice.

From what we understand, the location for Anwar’s Friday prayer was changed because of renovation works carried out at Niujie.

Additionally, Anwar had met prominent Confucian scholar cum founder of Dialogue between Civilizations Professor Tu Weiming during the Dialogue between Islam and Confucian Civilizations in Kuala Lumpur when he was deputy prime minister.

Peking University Alumni Association of Malaysia had intended to arrange a meeting at the university in conjunction with the Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing so that he could meet up with Professor Tu and four other scholars there.

The association’s president Nai Chen Huang revealed that they had contacted Professor Tu in San Francisco, and the latter had expressed his wish to meet up with the old friend Anwar Ibrahim.

Unfortunately, the plan did not materialise, and Professor Tu had since written a letter to be handed over to Anwar by Nai. With the help of Anwar’s political secretary Chan Ming Kai, Nai personally handed the letter to the PM during a Ramadan dinner at the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing on March 30.

Anwar has always been seen as pro-US, and indeed his Beijing visit this time has commanded a lot of attention from across the Pacific.

During the Ramadan dinner hosted by the PM at the Malaysian Embassy for Malaysian students and Malaysian citizens living in China, he answered a question by Suang Fu Lim, a Malaysian expatriate stationed in China, on why he had chosen to visit China first.

He said he picked China because the country is our neighbour, and an important economy and trading partner.

He insisted that Malaysia, as a trading nation, must maintain good relationship with all countries, including the United States, because the US is a very old trading partner of Malaysia and we need the contributions from all these countries.

He also said he had chosen Asean countries as destinations of his first official visits, with the notable exception of Turkey, which was experiencing tragic earthquakes lately.

Since he became Prime Minister on Dec 4 last year, Anwar has visited most Asean countries, starting with Indonesia, followed by Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia.

“Outside Asean, I chose China because I wanted to more effectively defend the bilateral relationship between our two countries.” (Actually, the PM also visited Saudi Arabia from March 22 to 24 before his China trip.)

The China trip of Anwar, who has long been perceived as a pro-American leader, has raised the concern of some Americans who have since called up Anwar personally.

Replying to a supplementary question by Ipoh Barat MP Kulasegaran V. Murugeson from DAP during the Q&A session at Dewan Rakyat on Tuesday, Anwar said he had openly proposed an Asian Monetary Fund instead of continuing to rely on the dollar and the IMF, at the Boao forum.

He said there were no good reasons for Malaysia to continue to rely on the dollar as the sole investment and trading currency.

We believe this should raise more eyebrows among the Americans.

We must not interpret Anwar’s Beijing visit as he being pro-China. As a matter of fact, it is impossible for him to be anti-America because as the Prime Minister of Malaysia, he is well aware that the country cannot afford to take sides but must befriend all major powers in a bid to minimise the risks while maximising opportunities of cooperation in the best interest of Malaysia.

Anyway, this is the wisest option given the increasing uncertainty in the global political environment.

Commanding the most strategic location in South-East Asia, Malaysia’s support is much sought after by both the United States and China. As such, we must more than ever insist on our neutrality. The risk of taking sides is simply too large for us to bear.

This is exactly the viewpoint emphasized by Professor Kuik Cheng-Chwee, head of Centre for Asian Studies, Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), UKM, in his “strategic hedging theory”: In the face of escalating tension between major powers and uncertainties, small and medium-sized countries will need to lower their risks in three ways — to more proactively re-emphasize diplomatic independence, to diversify their strategic partnerships, and opt to cooperate in order to offset risks arising from disparity in strengths.

Let’s wait until September to see whether Anwar will choose to fly to Washington for an official visit after the UN assembly in New York, or attend the Belt & Road Forum for International Cooperation in China, before we can conclude whether he is pro-America, pro-China or neutral.

If those dates don’t clash, who knows Anwar may just go both ways for the simple reason that he is the Prime Minister of Malaysia, not a chess piece of China, nor America’s lackey.

The writer is the editor-in-chief of Sin Chew Daily. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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