Malaysian leader Anwar says China a 'true friend' and not to be feared as Premier Li ends visit

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Malaysia's Department of Information

In this photo released by Malaysia's Department of Information, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim speak during a business luncheon with China's Premier Li Qiang at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, June 20, 2024. (Malaysia's Department of Information via AP)

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on Thursday rejected the notion that China's dominance is to be feared, calling China a “true friend” at the end of Premier Li Qiang's visit to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties between their countries.

While the leaders raised some contentious bilateral issues, Anwar said they discussed them as “equal partners, as trusted friends.” He didn't give details but was likely referring to the prickly issue of overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

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“People say, well, Malaysia is a growing economy. Don’t let China abuse its privilege and extort from the country. I said no. To the contrary, we want to benefit from one another, we want to learn from one another and we want to profit from this engagement,” Anwar told some 200 business leaders at a luncheon attended by Li.

His words will be welcomed by China’s leadership, which finds itself increasingly at odds with countries from the Philippines to Japan as it grows as a regional power in Asia. During his visit, Li held up what he called the “friendship” between China and Malaysia as a positive example for country-to-country relations in the region.

Anwar said he rebuked the “incessant propaganda that we should cast aspersions and fear the dominance of China economically, militarily, technologically.”

“We do not. We in Malaysia, having a neutral stance, have the resolve to work with all countries and with China,” he said. “We see Premier Li Qiang as a friend that would work together with us."

Li, who is China's No. 2 leader after President Xi Jinping, was the first Chinese premier to visit Malaysia since 2015. He flew in for a three-day visit on Tuesday on the last leg of a regional tour. Li was also the first Chinese premier to visit New Zealand and then Australia in seven years.

The two leaders on Wednesday agreed that China and other claimant countries in Southeast Asia should tackle the South China Sea dispute “independently and properly” through dialogue and cooperation, and via bilateral settlement.

No details were given but the statement came amid concerns the dispute could escalate tensions between the U.S. and China. The U.S. renewed a warning Tuesday that it is obligated to defend treaty ally Philippines, after Chinese forces seized two Philippine boats delivering food and supplies to a military outpost in a disputed shoal and injured several Filipino navy personnel.

Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan all dispute Beijing’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea. Malaysia’s government prefers diplomatic channels and rarely criticizes Beijing publicly, even though Chinese coast guard ships have sailed near Malaysia’s waters. This is partly to protect economic ties as China has been Malaysia's top trading partner since 2009. Bilateral trade surged to $98.8 billion last year, accounting for 17% of Malaysia’s global trade.

At the luncheon, Li urged businesses to expand cooperation in emerging fields such as green development, digital economy and artificial intelligence.

“The journey of China and Malaysia over the past 50 years... is like an expedition where two people have joined hands and waded through mountains and rivers, and won a milestone full of achievements. It also marks the official beginning of the next journey full of hope,” Li said.

Li was given a red carpet ceremonial send-off and an honor guard as he departed for home later Thursday.

The two countries renewed a five-year trade and economic cooperation pact on Wednesday and inked a rash of pacts to cooperate in various sectors.

The Trade Ministry said 11 more memorandums were signed between Malaysian and Chinese entities on Thursday that could bring in potential investment of 13.2 billion ringgit ($2.8 billion). These included proposed collaborations in high value-added sector such as oil and gas, energy, education, agriculture, automotive and utility services, it said in a statement.

A joint statement by the two governments Thursday said China will extend visa-free travel for Malaysian tourists until end-2025, while Malaysia will reciprocate with a longer period until end-2026.

It said the two countries will also jointly nominate the lion dance, a cultural dance performed during Lunar New Year and festivals, to be on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. About a quarter of Malaysia's 33 million people are ethnic Chinese.

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