Malaysia reviews China infrastructure plans

Malaysia’s former PM Najib Razak (AFP)
Updated 18 June 2018
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Malaysia reviews China infrastructure plans

  • Malaysia's scandal-mired former PM Najib Razak signed a string of deals for Beijing-funded projects, including a major rail link and a deep-sea port.
  • New Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has announced a planned high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Singapore will not go ahead as he seeks to reduce the country’s huge national debt.

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia has been a loyal partner in China’s globe-spanning infrastructure drive, but its new government is to review Beijing-backed projects, threatening key links in the much-vaunted initiative.

Kuala Lumpur’s previous regime, led by scandal-mired Najib Razak, had warm ties with China, and signed a string of deals for Beijing-funded projects, including a major rail link and a deep-sea port.

But the long-ruling coalition was unexpectedly voted out last month by an electorate alienated by allegations of corruption and rising living costs.

Critics have said that many agreements lacked transparency, fueling suspicions they were struck in exchange for help to pay off debts from the financial scandal which ultimately helped bring down Najib’s regime.

The new government, led by political heavyweight Mahathir Mohammed, has pledged to review Chinese deals seen as dubious, calling into question Malaysia’s status as one of Beijing’s most cooperative partners in its infrastructure push.

China launched its initiative to revive ancient Silk Road trading routes with a global network of ports, roads and railways — dubbed “One Belt, One Road” —  in 2013.

Malaysia and Beijing ally Cambodia were seen as bright spots in Southeast Asia, with projects in other countries often facing problems, from land acquisition to drawn-out negotiations with governments.

“Malaysia under Najib moved quickly to approve and implement projects,” Murray Hiebert, a senior associate from think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP.

Chinese foreign direct investment into Malaysia stood at just 0.8 percent of total net FDI inflows in 2008, but that figure had risen to 14.4 percent by 2016, according to a study from Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

However, Hiebert said it was “widely assumed” that Malaysia was striking quick deals with China in the hope of getting help to cover debts from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.

Najib and his associates were accused of stealing huge sums of public money from the investment vehicle in a massive fraud. Public disgust at the allegations — denied by Najib and 1MDB — helped topple his government.

Malaysia’s first change of government in six decades has left Najib facing a potential jail term.

New Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has announced a planned high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and neighboring Singapore will not go ahead as he seeks to reduce the country’s huge national debt.

The project was in its early stages and had not yet received any Chinese funding as part of “One Belt, One Road.” But Chinese companies were favorites to build part of the line, which would have constituted a link in a high-speed route from China’s Yunnan province to trading hub Singapore, along which Chinese goods could have been transported for export.

Work has already started in Malaysia on another line seen as part of that route, with Chinese funding — the $14-billion East Coast Rail Link, running from close to the Thai border to a port near Kuala Lumpur.

Mahathir has said that agreement is now being renegotiated.

Other Chinese-funded initiatives include a deep-sea port in Malacca, near important shipping routes, and an enormous industrial park.

It is not clear yet which projects will be amended but experts believe axing some will be positive.

Alex Holmes, Asia economist for Capital Economics, backed canceling some initiatives, citing “Malaysia’s weak fiscal position and that some of the projects are of dubious economic value.”

The Chinese foreign ministry did not respond to request for comment.

Decoder

What is the "One Belt, One Road" initiative?

The “One Belt, One Road” initiative, started in 2013, has come to define the economic agenda of President Xi Jinping. It aims to revive ancient Silk Road trading routes with a network of ports, roads and railways.


British PM May: 'I will not break up my country for EU Brexit deal'

Updated 21 September 2018
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British PM May: 'I will not break up my country for EU Brexit deal'

  • Theresa May hits back with angry statement after EU leaders rejected May’s Chequers plan
  • Sterling plummets as both sides warn they are planning for a no-deal scenario

LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Friday Brexit talks with the European Union had hit an impasse, defiantly challenging the bloc to come up with their own plans a day after the bloc’s leaders savaged her proposals.
At a summit in Austria on Thursday, EU leaders rejected May’s “Chequers” plan, saying she needed to give ground on trade and customs arrangements for the UK border with Ireland.
The British media said the response had left her proposals in tatters, and May angrily struck back in a televised address from her Downing Street office, saying neither side should expect the impossible from the other.
“Throughout this process, I have treated the EU with nothing but respect,” May said. “The UK expects the same. A good relationship at the end of this process depends on it.”
Sterling extended its losses as May spoke, falling to as low as $1.3080, about 1.4 percent on the day, putting it on course for its biggest one-day drop this year, over growing fears Britain could leave the EU without any deal.
May has said the Chequers proposals for trade with the EU, which would resolve arguments over the border of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic, were the only way forward. EU leaders in Salzburg repeated their view that the plans would undermine their cherished single market.
After the summit, EU leaders said they would push for an agreement next month, but both sides have warned they are planning for a no-deal scenario.
“It’s not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals without a detailed explanation and counter proposals,” May said. “So we now need to hear from the EU what the real issues are, what their alternative is, so that we can discuss them. Until we do, we cannot make progress.”
May, who commands a majority in parliament only with the support of a small pro-Brexit Northern Irish party, said she could not agree to any deal which treated Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the United Kingdom.
The EU insists that there can be no hard border between the British province and the Irish Republic, with Northern Ireland remaining in the bloc’s customs union or effectively establishing a border in the Irish Sea if no alternative deal is reached.
“I will not overturn the result of the referendum nor will I break up my country,” she said. “We need serious engagement on resolving the two main problems in the negotiations and we stand ready.”
However, she said no matter what happened, the rights of three million EU citizens living in the United Kingdom would be protected.
Earlier, her Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said some EU leaders had shown unstatesmanlike behavior in Salzburg.
“We’ve already compromised hugely with the Chequers proposals,” Raab told BBC TV. “What we’re not going to do is be salami sliced throughout this negotiation in a typical style that the EU engages in without movement on the other side.”
For the British media, the message from Salzburg had been clear. “Your Brexit’s broken,” the Daily Mirror newspaper said.
Newspapers led their front pages with a Reuters picture showing May, dressed in a red jacket, standing apparently aloof and alone from a mass of suited male EU leaders.
May faces a fight with angry Conservative lawmakers at her party’s annual conference from Sept. 30.
Many have voiced opposition to her plans, which they said would bind Britain into much EU regulation in return for free trade, and some would prefer a no-deal “hard Brexit” in March, despite warnings that would ravage the British economy.
“Theresa May’s Brexit negotiating strategy has been a disaster,” opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “The Tories have spent more time arguing among themselves than negotiating with the EU.
“The political games from both the EU and our government need to end because no deal is not an option.”
In response to May’s statement, the Confederation of British Industry and other business bodies said they wanted to see constructive dialogue, not rhetoric.
Last week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan added his voice to those including union and business leaders who said there should be a second Brexit referendum. Scotland’s top court ruled on Friday that the European Court of Justice should consider whether Britain could unilaterally change its mind on Brexit.
“The referendum was the largest democratic exercise this country has ever undergone,” said May, who has repeatedly ruled out a second vote following the original 2016 referendum. “To deny its legitimacy or frustrate its result threatens public trust in our democracy.”