China-Malaysia Relations and Foreign Policy

By Izzuddin, Mustafa | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2016 | Go to article overview

China-Malaysia Relations and Foreign Policy


Izzuddin, Mustafa, Contemporary Southeast Asia


China-Malaysia Relations and Foreign Policy. By Abdul Razak Baginda. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, 2016. Hardcover: 255pp.

China-Malaysia Relations and Foreign Policy combines theory with historical narrative to examine the decision-making process that led to the normalization of Malaysia-China relations on 31 May 1974, as well as the implications of this historic breakthrough on the evolution of bilateral relations thereafter. Located within the study of the foreign policies of developing states, Baginda's doctoral thesis-turned-book adopts a multivariate levels-of-analysis approach--individual, state and systemic--and fuses it with the conception of linkage politics--how external variables affect internal politics as well as how internal variables impact the foreign policy of a state--to better comprehend Malaysia's decision to establish diplomatic relations with China.

By emphasizing the interplay of internal and external factors, as well as the role of individual decision-makers, Baginda persuasively argues that it was the close linkage between Malaysia's external (regional/global) environment and the domestic ethno-political situation (mostly relations between the Malays and Chinese) centring on the personalized leadership of Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak (Razak) that led to normalization. Brick by brick, Baginda discusses the shifts in external and internal environments, first from the evolution of Malaysia's foreign policy towards China from independence in 1957 to the end of Konfrontasi (1963-66) in Chapter 3; and second from 1967 to 1969 (Chapter 4) when Malaysia's China policy was influenced by the domestic communist insurgency, the Sino-Soviet dispute and the formation of ASEAN in 1967. The change in Malaysia's China policy from hostile non-recognition under the first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, to cautious rapprochement under Razak, is attributed by Baginda to the decision-maker in Razak, especially his personality as the pivot by which foreign policy choices were made based on external and domestic considerations (pp. 88-89).

The most compelling chapter concerns the decision-making process and the road to normalization from 1972 to 1974 (Chapter 6), not least because Baginda managed to acquire letters, memos and transcripts of conversations, in addition to interviews of prominent officials, which are not in the public domain. These materials help provide an invaluable insight into the thinking of officials involved in the normalization process. Chronologically, Baginda lays out for readers how Razak tested the viability of his normalization project by way of goodwill gestures, trade missions, sporting events and secret bilateral meetings. One such meeting was between Razak's economic advisor, Raja Tun Mohar and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972, who then reported back to Razak. This had the effect of shifting the perception of China from an adversary to potential diplomatic partner, with "the road now clear for the two countries to establish formal relations" (p. 127).

Baginda reveals that although Malaysia was reluctant to "ASEANize" its bilateral relations with China in that "Kuala Lumpur (KL) should not disclose its timetable to any Asean state", it kept a close watch on the diplomatic moves of other ASEAN countries, even to the point of keeping them informed of its intentions towards China (pp. 141-44). Baginda outlines the correspondence between Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta regarding the shift in Malaysia's China policy, presumably because "Malaysia wanted some kind of 'blessing' from Indonesia so that its normalisation with China would not necessarily antagonise its giant neighbour" (p. 146). The author also contends that elite perceptions of China were also varied, with security planners taking a less sanguine view than political leaders, unsurprising given China's continued interference in Malaysia's domestic affairs via the Communist Party of Malaya (p. …

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