Global EditionASIA 中文双语Français
Home / Opinion / Global Lens

Diplomacy enriches ties with Malaysia

By Ong Tee Keat | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-06-04 06:53
Share - WeChat

The trajectory of the 50-year-old Malaysia-China diplomatic relations has never been bump-free along its course. But it is the challenges that have kept bilateral ties resilient.

During the three-year COVID-19 pandemic since late 2019, Malaysian NGOs, supported by Chinese entrepreneurs, spontaneously aided pandemic-stricken areas, leading to reciprocal support from the Chinese government with vaccines and medical supplies sent to Malaysia. This manifests a perfect match of the state-centric "Track 1 diplomacy" with the people-driven "Track 2 diplomacy" between the two countries when many other parts of the world were still grappling with trust deficit that hindered concerted human rescue endeavours.

Obviously, state actors in some countries were still suffering from the Cold War mindset, characterized by the ideological schism that had once dominated the world order.

In retrospect, half a century ago, then Malaysian prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein made a landmark move that took the world by storm when he visited Beijing at the height of the Cold War. His handshake with Chairman Mao Zedong made Malaysia the first ASEAN member state to reach out to China, that culminated with the fostering of diplomatic ties with the most populous nation of the time.

The former Malaysian prime minister's move might have raised many eyebrows in the West, because the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, generally dubbed as a Western ally in the region, was widely expected to toe the West's line.

Be that as it may, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein's bold yet visionary move was deemed consistent with the 1971 ASEAN Declaration of ZOPFAN, a foundational declaration seeking to create a "zone of peace, freedom and neutrality" in Southeast Asia, "free from any form or manner of interference by outside powers" in order to "broaden the areas of cooperation".

Fast forward to 1991, Malaysia extended its engagement with China to ASEAN when it hosted the 24th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Kuala Lumpur where the Chinese foreign minister was invited for the first time. That paved the way for China to integrate with the bloc as the first dialogue partner, which later evolved into an ASEAN-China comprehensive strategic partnership in 2021.

Prior to that, Malaysia and China had their comprehensive strategic partnership sealed in 2013, the inaugural year of the Belt and Road Initiative, which Malaysia was one of the first countries to join.

While the East Coast Rail Link project is still in progress under the Belt and Road Initiative framework, incumbent Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's high profile visit to China in 2023 further bolstered bilateral ties when he reached a consensual decision with President Xi Jinping to build a China-Malaysia community with a shared future — a further platform enabling multi-dimensional engagement between the two nations.

This is well poised to help integrate Malaysia with such China-initiated global initiatives as the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative — the three other Chinese public goods offered to global governance in the interest of humanity, alongside the Belt and Road Initiative.

Since Malaysia will assume the ASEAN's rotational chairmanship in 2025, all eyes in ASEAN will naturally be focused on the outcome of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area 3.0 where wider market access to China is anticipated.

Alongside this, perhaps what appears no less relevant is ASEAN's outreach to China in realizing the goals of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, of which one of its pillars — the ASEAN Economic Community — envisions the creation of a single market that allows free flow of goods, services, labour and capital within the region.

The economic pillar, along with the ASEAN Political and Security Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, looks set to resonate with the aspirations of the latest three China-proposed global initiatives. In pursuit of the wellbeing of the more than 660 million people it represents, ASEAN should be bold enough to pursue its strategic autonomy by engaging with China to realize the shared goals underscored in the ASEAN Community Vision 2025.

In this context, Malaysia with its prowess in community building makes an ideal choice for bridging the gulf. In pursuit of its age-old legacy of independent and autonomous diplomacy under the time-tested framework of the "ZOPFAN declaration", Malaysia has the edge of taking such lead when it assumes the ASEAN chairmanship next year.

After all, we are not obliged to dance to the tune of others, notably external powers, which remain obsessed with their zero-sum games mindset against the background of geopolitical rivalry.

The author is president of the Malaysia-based Belt and Road Initiative Caucus for Asia Pacific.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

If you have a specific expertise, or would like to share your thought about our stories, then send us your writings at, and

Most Viewed in 24 Hours
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349