BEIJING — Malaysia’s prime minister arrived in China on Monday with warm words for his hosts, a thirst for Chinese money and, for the first time, a promise of significantly closer defense ties with the purchase of Chinese naval coastal patrol ships.
Najib Razak called himself a “true friend” of China, determined to take their relationship to “new heights” — echoing the pro-China outreach by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte two weeks ago when he proclaimed a “separation” from his country’s longtime U.S.-oriented policies.
The twin nods toward China reinforce the regional narrative of American decline and China’s inexorable rise. They also showcase Beijing’s apparent ability to buy off rivals for disputed territory in the South China Sea, which China claims as its own despite strong objections from the Pentagon and U.S. allies in the region.
“Malaysia being a South China Sea claimant, and hot on the heels of Duterte, there is an obvious symbolism there,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “In the maritime geopolitical aspect, it’s almost back to dominoes. The Philippines has caved, and Malaysia looks wobbly.”
Malaysia is China’s closest trading partner in Southeast Asia. The naval deal will add a significant security element to that relationship, experts said.
Part of the reason is domestic politics. Najib was once so close to President Obama that they spent a day playing golf together in Hawaii in 2014. But ties to the United States were strained in July after the Justice Department opened an investigation into alleged money laundering at a state investment fund linked to the Malaysian leader. That scandal has made Najib unwelcome in Western capitals and depressed Western investment in his country.
Najib will be discussing a high-speed rail project as well as real estate and energy deals with China, but it is his promise to sign “the first significant defense deal” between the two nations that comes as something of a surprise.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, noting that Najib faces elections next year. “It looks very good for domestic purposes if a world power like China is willing to see him and give him five-star treatment, a red-carpet welcome.”
But there are also geopolitical calculations and recalibrations underway around the region, some experts say.
Obama’s strategic rebalance, or “pivot,” to Asia has proved a disappointment in many capitals, with the ambitious 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement in deep trouble. China, by contrast, can offer piles of cash and promises of investment without tortuous negotiations or exacting conditions.
The U.S. military has been unable to prevent China’s island reclamation program in the South China Sea, while Duterte’s pledge to throw out U.S. troops has been another blow — even if many experts predict a less dramatic shift in Philippine foreign policy than its erratic president might threaten.
“The pivot hasn’t had the impact it ought to have had,” said Michael Montesano, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “It has failed to reduce the doubts that were already there about U.S. staying power and commitment to the region.”
Yet the narrative of U.S. “decline” and Asia’s tilt toward China is only one side of the coin, Montesano and others argue.
China may have power, money and influence, but its aggressive assertion of its South China Sea claims has alienated other nations and pushed them toward Washington, said Yang Razali Kassim, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
An international tribunal ruled in July that Beijing’s expansive claims to the South China Sea lacked historical basis. “If China pushes its weight to press the claims that it has lost,” he said, “Beijing will only carve for itself the image of a menacing emerging giant.”
In fact, few Asian nations want to be in Beijing’s pocket any more than they want to be in Washington’s and would prefer strategic balance between the two powers.
Even for Malaysia, it is too early to say if the latest step is a solid move into China’s camp, said Yin Shao Loong, executive director of Malaysia’s Institut Rakyat.
Malaysia’s military held joint training with Chinese armed forces in 2015, but it has deeper and longer-standing links with the United States and other Western nations.
It has also allowed the U.S. Navy to fly P-8A Poseidon long-range surveillance aircraft from its territory in recent years, to Beijing’s discomfort.
Strategic balance is even more of a priority in Vietnam, which has moved significantly closer to Washington in recent years while being careful not to antagonize Beijing.
In September, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Beijing in a bid to boost trade and attract investment.
“Up to that point we were very hesitant,” said a Vietnamese official who was not authorized to be named, explaining that his nation did not want to become economically overdependent on China or a dumping ground for inferior products and polluting heavy industries. “But we are recalibrating, accepting more of the Chinese economy in Vietnam’s economy — the Chinese are the ones who have money to spend.”
But Vietnam, with domestic public opinion strongly nationalistic, is equally determined not to give way in its dispute with China in the South China Sea.
It is a similarly mixed picture elsewhere.
Thailand’s military-led government is buying three submarines from China, but Indonesia — furious about incursions by Chinese fishing boats into its waters this year — is now considering joint patrols with Australia in the South China Sea, officials said this week, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.