China-Malaysia Relations and Foreign Policy

China-Malaysia Relations and Foreign Policy

Using a classical foreign policy analysis (FPA) framework, Abdul Razak Baginda was able to comb through the archives and open literature, to come up with a strong and compelling narrative of why Malaysia was the first among the ASEAN countries to recognize China in the mid 1970s.

The willingness to use FPA, in contemporary scholarship, will of course invite scrutiny. For example, there is no clear specification of independent variable and dependent variable. It was assumed, as a matter of fact, that the Prime Minister, in this case, Tun Abdul Razak, together with a coterie of top civil servants would call the shots in the normalization of Malaysia's relations with China. Since there is no independent variable, one cannot know which aspect of Sino Malaysia relationship was more important: was it an attempt to race ahead of the regional changes that were to come, when US pulled out of Vietnam in 1974; or was it to prepare the region to accept a world where US and China could co exist ? More importantly, was Malaysia trying to accentuate its own concept of neutralism, stability, and equi-distance with all great powers starting with China ?

This book, rendered from the PhD thesis at University of Oxford, somehow skipped all the complex questions to give a powerful narrative of why, how, when and who were the prime movers in getting the bilateral relationship in shape. But precisely the interactions were complex, which at certain stages also involved Malaysia politely notifying Indonesia of its plans to recognize China, the narrative should be simple. Otherwise, too many variables, and hypothesis would have ruined the book without repair.

So, Abdullah Baginda, explained how the trip was undertaken to China, and how Malaysia, being a smaller power, failed to persuade China to drop its "party to party" relationship with the Malaysian Communist Party-----sticking to a "government to government" or "state to state" relationship only. This is where more complexities come into the picture too.

According to Lee Kuan Yew, when he met Deng Xiao Ping, he told him to stop the communist radio broadcast. Deng Xiao Ping, ever the pragmatist, agreed, with the proviso that Lee Kuan Yew would advise China on how to reform. Lee agreed, and the Singapore-Suzhou Industrial park too off.

In Abdullah Razak Baginda, the willingness to let China get away with "party to party" relationship was explained in a somewhat diplomatic manner------that perhaps Tun Razak did not want to embarrass the host. But the issue is, Singapore could often tell Chinese government when to stop their breakfast.

Lacking the means to go to war with China, or twist the arm of Beijing, Tun Razak had no choice but to agree to Chairman's Mao assertion that "party and party" should be set aside, while "government to government" relationship could take precedence too.

Razak Baginda is right, the FPA is like what Kenneth Waltz said: "It has a lot of events but no theory." In fact, it is quite amazing that University of Oxford has Ph.D. supervisors that can still attest to the value and utility of FPA, as this approach is no longer considered valid in most institutions of higher learning, especially one as famous as University of Oxford.

But Razak Baginda ought to be applauded for using a simple, sequential, and straight-forward re-telling of the Sino Malaysian past. This is a book that does not pretend to know all the facts, only the major ones. In this sense, it succeeds on sheer humility. One day, when there are better Ph.D. thesis on Sino Malaysian relations, they still have to rely on the narrative to which it has coherently established.