By Jeanette Tan, International News Writer
On Tuesday, November 2, Malaysia signed a contract to purchase four navy vessels from China. The purchase of the four littoral mission ships marks Malaysia’s first “landmark” defense deal with China amid rising tension regarding the South China Sea conflict. With this action, Malaysia has, taken a step towards China. This purchase, along with similar steps recently taken by the Philippines has begun to weaken U.S. influence in the ASEAN region.
According to Malaysian press, The Star, Prime Minister Najib Razak told a press conference, “I call this a landmark decision because before this, we have not bought such vessels from China.”
This is the start of a new relationship between the two countries, which prior to this purchase had a lot of tension due to South China Sea disputes.
While China claims most of the South China Sea as its territory, neighboring South East Asian countries Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei, also make claims to parts of the South China Sea in efforts to gain control of the $5 trillion worth of trade that is carried through the sea each year.
Both Malaysia and China have pledged to handle the dispute bilaterally. As quoted by Reuters, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, “Leaders of the two sides agreed to further advance the proper settlement of the South China Sea issue with dialogue through a bilateral channel.”
In addition, CNN quoted Liu saying, “As two countries on the South China Sea, China and Malaysia’s increasing naval cooperation to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea is of great significance in increasing mutual trust between the two countries.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak arrived in Beijing on Monday to oversee the purchase of the vessels and hold bilateral talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
In a statement to Malaysian news agency Bernama, Najib said that both nations also signed a series of other agreements totaling 143.64 Ringgit ($34.4 billion), among which includes the construction of the Malaysian East Coast Rail Line which amounts to 55 billion Ringgit ($13.2 billion). Malaysian press, The Star, reported that China has agreed to increase its import of certain Malaysian goods and frequency of direct flights between the two nations.
This move to closer defense ties between Malaysia and China is not a surprising one. Bloomberg News reported that Malaysia and China held its first bilateral military exercise two years ago.
Malaysia’s pivot to China also comes after the U.S. Justice Department’s bid to seize more than $1 billion linked to an alleged money-laundering scandal involving Najib and a Malaysian state fund known as 1MDB.
Malaysia’s announcement of closer ties with China follows that of the Philippines, when President Rodrigo Duterte proclaimed his country’s “separation” from the United States and signed a series of memorandums for Chinese investments in the country. These shifting alignments come at a crucial point as the US continues its “pivot” towards the Pacific.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, November 8th print edition.
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