Malaysia reviews China infrastructure plans

Malaysia’s former PM Najib Razak (AFP)
Updated 18 June 2018
0

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.


US courts allies with free trade offers at G20, France resists

Updated 22 July 2018
0

US courts allies with free trade offers at G20, France resists

BUENOS AIRES: The US sought to woo Europe and Japan with free trade deals on Saturday to gain leverage in an escalating tariff war with China but its overtures faced stiff resistance from France at a G20 finance ministers meeting dominated by trade tensions.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at the gathering of the financial leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies in Buenos Aires that he was renewing President Donald Trump’s proposal that G7 allies drop trade barriers between them.
“If Europe believes in free trade, we’re ready to sign a free trade agreement,” Mnuchin said, adding that such a deal would require the elimination of tariffs, non-tariff barriers and subsidies. “It has to be all three issues.”
Trump has angered European allies by imposing import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, causing the European Union to retaliate with similar amounts of tariffs on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Kentucky bourbon and other products.
Trump, who frequently criticizes Europe’s 10 percent car tariffs, is also studying adding a 25 percent levy on automotive imports, which would hit both Europe and Japan hard.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the European Union would not consider launching trade talks with the United States unless Trump first withdraws the steel and aluminum tariffs and stands down on a car tariff threat.
“We refuse to negotiate with a gun to our head,” Le Maire told reporters on the sidelines of the G20 meeting.
Trump has angered European allies by imposing import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, causing the European Union to retaliate with similar amounts of tariffs on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Kentucky bourbon and other products.
Trump, who frequently criticizes Europe’s 10 percent car tariffs, is also studying adding a 25 percent levy on automotive imports, which would hit both Europe and Japan hard.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the European Union would not consider launching trade talks with the United States unless Trump first withdraws the steel and aluminum tariffs and stands down on a car tariff threat.
“We refuse to negotiate with a gun to our head,” Le Maire told reporters on the sidelines of the G20 meeting.
IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde presented the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting in Buenos Aires with a report warning that existing trade restrictions would reduce global output by 0.5 percent.
In the briefing note prepared for G20 ministers, the IMF said global economic growth may peak at 3.9 percent in 2018 and 2019, while downside risks have increased due to the growing trade conflict.
Lagarde’s presentation came shortly after Mnuchin said there was no “macro” effect yet on the US economy.
Mnuchin said that, while there were some “micro” effects such as retaliation against US-produced soybeans, lobsters and bourbon, he did not believe that tariffs would keep the United States from achieving sustained 3 percent growth this year.
The US dollar fell the most in three weeks on Friday against a basket of six major currencies .DXY after Trump complained again about the greenback’s strength and about Federal Reserve interest rate rises, halting a rally that had driven the dollar to its highest in a year.
The last G20 finance meeting in Buenos Aires in late March ended with no firm agreement by ministers on trade policy except for a commitment to “further dialogue.”
Brazilian Finance Minister Eduardo Guardia said participants agreed the risks to the global economy had increased since their last meeting, citing rising trade tensions and higher interest rates by major central banks.
He said the final communique would reflect the need for members, particularly in emerging markets that have been roiled by currency weakness, to undertake reforms to protect themselves against volatility.
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said he would use the meeting to advocate for a rules-based trading system, but that expectations were low.
“I don’t expect tangible progress to be made at this meeting,” Scholz told reporters on the plane to Buenos Aires.
The US tariffs will cost Germany up to 20 billion euros ($23.44 billion) in income this year, according to the head of German think-tank IMK.
Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said he hoped the debate at the G20 gathering would lead to an easing of retaliatory trade measures.
“Trade protectionism benefits no one involved,” he said. “I think restraint will eventually take hold.”