April 21, 2021

Using an asymmetry-authority framework, this article analyzes Malaysia’s engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, more broadly, Malaysia’s relations with China. Relations between the two countries were initially hostile, but changing external and internal conditions induced Malaysia to leverage power asymmetry to enhance and legitimize its ruling elites’ political authority. Thus, despite ongoing claims in the South China Sea and domestic discontent about China’s growing economic presence, successive Malaysian leaders have embraced China-backed infrastructure connectivity projects. Mahathir’s renegotiation of selected controversial projects in 2018–2019 and another change in federal government in March 2020 did not change this approach. I argue that this persistent (albeit fluctuating) embrace is a result of converging pathways of elite legitimation in Malaysia—that is, both development-based and identity-based legitimation, alongside patronage politics—that requires the Malay-dominated ruling elites to pragmatically embrace such foreign-backed infrastructure partnerships as China’s BRI. While democracy-based legitimation following the May 2018 elections necessitated Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government to suspend some projects and recalibrate Malaysia’s BRI receptivity, these changes were adjustments, not a departure from Malaysia’s pragmatic embrace.

Decoding the Mahathir Doctrine - by CWP Alumni Cheng-Chwee Kuik |  Columbia-Harvard China and the World program

Dr. Kuik Cheng-Chwee is an associate professor at the Strategic Studies and International Relations Program at the National University of Malaysia (UKM), and concurrently an associate fellow at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya (UM). He is the co-founder and co-convener of the East Asian International Relations (EAIR) Caucus, a research platform for exchange, engagement, and empowerment among foreign affairs professionals in Malaysia. Dr. Kuik is an adjunct lecturer at the Malaysian Armed Forces Defense College (under Ministry of Defense) and the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations (under Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Previously he was a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton-Harvard “China and the World” Program (CWP) and a visiting research fellow at Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations. Dr. Kuik’s research concentrates on weaker states’ foreign policy behavior, state alignment choices, regional multilateralism, East Asian security, China-ASEAN relations, and Malaysia’s external policy. His publications have appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Journal of Contemporary ChinaContemporary Southeast AsiaChinese Journal of International PoliticsAsian SecurityChina: An International JournalAsian Politics and PolicyEast Asian PolicyShijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi, as well as edited books. Cheng-Chwee’s essay “The Essence of Hedging” was awarded the biennial 2009 Michael Leifer Memorial Prize by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies for the best article published in any of the three ISEAS journals. He is a co-editor (with Alice Ba and Sueo Sudo) of Institutionalizing East Asia: Mapping and Reconfiguring Regional Cooperation (Routledge 2016). His current projects include: hedging in international relations, ASEAN states’ responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (with Lee Jones), and politics of China-related railroad projects in Southeast Asia (with David Lampton and Selina Ho). Cheng-Chwee serves on the editorial boards/ committee of Contemporary Southeast AsiaAustralian Journal of International AffairsAsian Perspective, and Routledge’s “IR Theory and Practice in Asia” Book Series. He holds an M.Litt. from the University of St. Andrews, and a PhD from t