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Taking ties to greater heights
Publication Date : 01-06-2014
By today, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak would have retraced the journey that his late father Tun Razak Hussein took when he pioneered diplomatic ties with China 40 years ago.
The Prime Minister’s China visit has been packed with official events and appointments. But it has also been rich in meaning and emotion as the itinerary took him through all the places that Razak went during his own historic and game-changing visit.
It was not quite the typical trip down memory lane because the China that his father saw and experienced is vastly different from the China that Najib is visiting.
Pictures of that first China trip resemble scenes from old China movies and Najib put it well when he spoke about “China’s incredible growth story” during his meeting with Chinese premier Li Keqiang in Beijing.
Najib’s father went against the political grain of the time to formalise bilateral ties between Malaysia and China. The visionary in him laid the foundation for the present-day ties in trade, industrial and educational and cultural activities between the two countries.
The Star, in a special edition on the visit, aptly described it as, “What the father began, the son is taking to the next level.”
Najib had brought along with him a high-powered team of top government officials and corporate big leaguers on the six-day trip, which in itself is a show of the respect and importance that Malaysia holds for the superpower state.
Both sides are committed to strengthening their ties and the year 2014 has also been designated the China-Malaysia year of friendly exchanges.
Not many may know this but a must-do for every Chinese ambassador to Malaysia has been to make a courtesy call on Razak’s widow Tun Rahah Mohammad Noah.
The Chinese side has often referred to the saying, “drinking the water from a well, one should never forget who dug it,” to explain their regard for the Tun Razak family.
It is the Chinese way of saying that they will always remember that Razak was the first to open the door to China, a move that led other countries in Asia to follow.
The Chinese government has rolled out the red carpet for Najib and the First Lady.
This is significant given the events following the MH370 tragedy where Chinese citizens had vented their anger and aggression in public protests against the Malaysian Government. But it did not shake relations between the two countries which have remained intact even as the search for the missing plane goes on.
Najib has his eye on the big picture, he believes in quiet diplomacy and engagement and he wants to approach Asia’s giant in a way that can benefit both sides.
Malaysia ranks among China’s top 10 trading partners. Trade between the two countries totalled 321 billion ringgit (US$99.87 billion) last year and is projected to hit 512 billion ringgit in a few years’ time.
A Malaysian-owned company, XianDa Group, plans to invest 8 billion ringgit to open a desalination plant utilising technology that will be the first of its kind in the world. It will be Malaysia’s most exciting investment in China ever.
Najib has also asked for China to reconsider its ban on Malaysian diary products and to allow small-scale exporters of bird’s nest in Malaysia to resume exports to China. A new Malaysian consulate will also be set up in Nanning in southern China.
Over and above all this is the fact that China’s economy is projected to overtake that of the United States to become the biggest in the world by 2015. In spite of the current anti-Chinese sentiments in Vietnam, Malaysia and other Asean countries have much to gain in engaging China.
Najib’s first stop was Xian where the world-famous terracotta warriors are an international attraction and where one of China’s most famous mosques, the Great Mosque of Xian, is located. Numerous emperors are buried here and it is China’s equivalent of the Pyramids of Egypt.
It was amid such amazing history and culture that Najib declared that he was “elated to be in China”. He paid tribute to Xian’s history as a reminder of “China’s contribution to mankind”.
Xian has a distinct Muslim community and culture where any Malaysian Muslim would feel at home because there is halal food everywhere, where the azan call for prayers fills the air and where the Chinese, in typical Chinese fashion, eat every single part of the cow.
Muslims in Malaysia are not always inspired by China the way Chinese Malaysians are. The old suspicions have yet to be totally erased.
The Malays tend to be more excited to see Najib stepping foot in Palestine and exchanging a Muslim brotherhood moment with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal than to see Najib rubbing shoulders with China political superstars.
It is true that Muslims make up only 1 per cent of China’s 1.4 billion population. But that translates into 20 million Muslims which is bigger than the entire Muslim population in Malaysia. It also translates into a sizeable market for halal food and products, something that Muslim businessmen in Malaysia would want to take note of.
In Beijing, Najib, in his shirtsleeves and velvet songkok, performed Friday prayers at the Niujie Mosque which has a history that began 1,000 years ago during the Qing Dynasty.
The China visit was not without some drama. The Prime Minister and Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor flew back to Malaysia a day after arriving. They wanted to pay their last respects to Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak who passed away on Wednesday.
It has been a big year for Najib in terms of international affairs. Obama fever is fading off down only to be replaced by panda-mania thanks to the cute pair of pandas from Ya’an in central China. There is even “durian diplomacy” because of the Chinese appetite for branded Malaysian durians.
The highlight of the China visit was May 31, the day when it all began for China and Malaysia exactly 40 years ago. The ceremony at the Great Hall of the People saw an exchange of warm speeches and the signing of a joint communique.
President Xi Jinping and Najib have something in common – they are of the same age and born in the Year of the Snake. Snake people are problem-solvers. They are also even tempered, analytical and hard-working. They rarely reveal their feelings but they stick by their friends through thick and thin.
Xi visited Kuala Lumpur last year, six months after becoming the Chinese President. Everyone was fascinated by his thick helmet of hair and his glamorous wife. It was at his October visit that the two countries set the ambitious bilateral trade target of 512 billion ringgit by 2017.
Najib’s priority on ties with China had begun shortly after he came in as Prime Minister.
But there was a spike in activities involving China in the run-up to the general election, from a joint-venture industrial park to a Chinese university campus in Selangor.
It is no secret that a great deal of it was connected to the general election or, more specifically, to Najib’s desire to win over the Chinese electorate.
When Najib’s father built the bridge between China and Malaysia, it was done with one eye on the long-term horizon and the other on winning the hearts and minds of Chinese Malaysians. Three months after that iconic handshake with Chairman Mao Zedong, he called for a general election and led the newly formed Alliance to sweeping majority.
Najib’s efforts to foster trade and cultural activities with China have been no less intense but he was dealing with a very different Chinese electorate. Like his father, he wants the Chinese to come along with him, he wants to win over the Chinese at home and abroad.
Najib’s China journey has shown that he genuinely wants to continue to foster and build on what his father started.