THE Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched by China’s President Xi Jinping in 2013, with an ambition to connect Asia, Europe and Africa through infrastructure and trade relations.
Malaysia was one of the earliest countries to have officially shown its support for the BRI.
Many megaprojects have been inked between Malaysia and China since then.
The key factor in making Malaysia a strategic partner of China’s BRI are the strong pre-existing bilateral ties between the countries.
As this year marks the 47th anniversary of China-Malaysia Diplomatic Relations, it proves the long-standing relationship between the countries was there even before BRI.
One of the first BRI projects implemented in Malaysia was the "Two Countries, Twin Parks" project.
It is represented by two industrial parks jointly developed by Malaysia and China, the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park (MCKIP) situated in Pahang, Malaysia and the China-Malaysia Qinzhou Industrial Park (CMQIP), situated in Guangxi, China.
These twin parks are seen as successful in promoting trade and investment in both countries, as remarked by both countries’ officials during the 4th Joint Cooperation Council Meeting on the MCKIP and CMQIP held in 2019.
According to MCKIP’s official website, there are three phases in this park.
MCKIP Phase 1 and Phase 2 cover an area of approximately 485.62ha (1,200 acres) and 404.68ha (1,000 acres) respectively.
This industrial area focuses on various industries such as steel and non-ferrous metals; petrochemicals; clean technology and renewable energy; electrical and electronic energy; and machinery and equipment manufacturing.
Currently, various industrial activities have commenced in MCKIP Phase 1 and 2.
According to the "Belt and Road Initiative in Asean" report jointly issued by United Overseas Bank and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Institute for Emerging Market Studies in December last year, the potential and confirmed investors in MCKIP include steel, spun concrete tiles, tyre and battery industrial plants.
MCKIP Phase 3 is situated approximately 10km from Kuantan Port and encompasses an area of approximately 526ha (1,300 acres).
This phase focuses on building a port city which includes residential areas, commercial lots, logistics hubs and light industries.
Kuantan Port is now expanding with the New Deep Water Terminal (NDWT) Project.
The first phase of the NDWT has been completed and it is now moving towards the second phase of development.
Once completed, the Kuantan Port could accommodate larger ships.
Further, the Kuantan Port was gazetted as a Free Commercial Zone on April 1, 2019 after receiving conditional approval from the Finance Ministry to establish a Free Zone port in June 2016.
While MCKIP may not be the only driving factor in the development of Kuantan Port, it certainly is a contributing factor.
Under the leadership of Datuk Seri Najib Razak, it was reported that Malaysia entered many memorandums of understanding with China, particularly between 2015 and 2016, covering different sectors including construction, infrastructure, finance, education, agriculture, defence, trade, and culture.
While some uncertainties ensued in some BRI projects in 2018 following the change of government in Malaysia, some were revived after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad visited China and spoke at the Second Belt and Road Forum in 2019 when he was Prime Minister.
Through this, Malaysia’s involvement in BRI was rekindled.
One of the projects revived in 2019 is the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL).
ECRL is a proposed 665km railway which links three states on the East Coast namely Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang with the Klang Valley in the west of the peninsula.
According to the official website of Malaysia Rail Link, which administers the implementation of ECRL, Section B of the link includes a station at Kuantan Port City.
Therefore, it is expected that ECRL will be integrated with MCKIP Phase 3.
This connectivity between land and sea on the East Coast of the peninsula will certainly bring about more economic development in the East Coast Economic Region.
As of November this year, it was reported that the construction of the ECRL was slightly behind schedule due to the movement control orders implemented by the Malaysian government to curb the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, Deputy Finance Minister I Mohd Shahar Abdullah recently mentioned that he is optimistic the project will be completed by 2026 as scheduled.
The completion of ECRL will be one of the contributing factors in turning Malaysia into a regional transportation and logistics hub for South-East Asia.
Furthermore, it aligns with Malaysia’s aspiration under the 12th Malaysian Plan to provide efficient and inclusive transport infrastructure and services as a regional logistics hub.
Looking back at how different leaders have managed the diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China, it is certain that Malaysia will continue to support, and will remain one of China’s strategic partners in, the BRI.
Despite the uncertainties in this pandemic, it is hoped that Malaysia will soon move toward post-pandemic recovery as we enter 2022.
Riding on the wave of the BRI will certainly speed up the recovery of our country’s economy through international cooperation.
Lai Chooi Ling is a Lecturer at Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TAR UC). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
The SEARCH Scholar Series is a social responsibility programme jointly organised by the Southeast Asia Research Centre for Humanities (SEARCH) and the Centre of Business and Policy Research, Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TAR UC), and co-organised by the Association of Belt and Road Malaysia.