China, Malaysia pledge to narrow differences on South China Sea

Kuala Lumpur also agrees to buy four Chinese naval vessels as part of Najib Razak’s visit to Beijing


China and Malaysia vowed to deepen cooperation on the ­disputed South China Sea on Tuesday as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak met Premier Li ­Keqiang in Beijing.

Li called on Malaysia and China to further consolidate their relationship, especially when it came to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as part of China’s efforts to win over member nations of the bloc.

“China would like to enhance communication and cooperation with Malaysia to further develop China-Asean relations,” Li was quoted as saying by state-run CCTV.

Najib said he ­believed his visit would bring ­bilateral ties between the two ­nations to a “new high”.

Malaysia had also agreed to buy four Chinese naval vessels, according to a report by Malaysian state media. The vessels are known as littoral mission ships, and are small craft that operate close to shore.

Two would be built in China and two in Malaysia, according to the report after the meeting ­between Li and Najib.

A number of other deals were signed between the two countries, including a memo of understanding on defence cooperation.

Asked for details on the defence arrangement, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the two countries were “focusing on naval cooperation”, and that the deal “marks a big event in our bilateral ties”.

Najib is the third Asean leader to visit China recently, after Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xhan Phuc and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Singapore is currently the coordinator between China and Asean, but ties between Beijing and the city state are strained by the South China Sea disputes.

Chinese media have accused Singapore of playing up the maritime tensions in regional meetings, and officials in Beijing have said that Singapore should stay out of the disputes because it is not a claimant state.

“It is impossible for Singapore to become the mediator between China and Asean nations, especially in the South China Sea disputes, because it has a close relationship with the United States,” Du Jifeng, an analyst at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.


BEIJING — Malaysia’s prime minister, miffed by a Justice Department investigation into his nation’s sovereign wealth fund, arrived in Beijing on Monday ready to buy Chinese military hardware, a deal that will rattle his relationship with the United States.

The presence of a Malaysian leader here would normally not get much attention. But China is seizing on another chance to best Washington in the Southeast Asian battleground after a successful visit by the new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, who excoriated the United States during his visit here two weeks ago.

As the Obama administration is winding down, the Chinese leadership is taking advantage of the moment by trying to chip away at the president’s signature policy of the pivot to Asia, offering attractive military and economic deals to America’s friends in Southeast Asia, particularly to those countries that border the contested South China Sea.

Even visits by relatively minor figures, like Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the army in Myanmar, are being given upbeat coverage in the Chinese state-run news media. President Obama has taken pride in drawing Myanmar closer to Washington.

Malaysia’s premier, Najib Razak, is expected to buy a fleet of Chinese fast patrol boats that can carry missiles, a deal that will further strengthen Malaysia’s fledgling military relationship with China.

In a reflection of Beijing’s attitude, a Chinese analyst, Zhang Baohui of Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said countries in Southeast Asia want good relations with China.

“It is wishful thinking on the part of Washington that these countries will equate their own national interests with that of the United States and will therefore pursue hard balancing against China,” Mr. Zhang said. “The reality is these countries do understand that maintaining good relations with China enhances their overall national interests.”

Like the Philippines and Vietnam, Malaysia has differences with China over contested islets and reefs in the South China Sea, but unlike those nations it has generally played down those disputes.

“Since the U.S. began pushing the South China Sea issue, Malaysian officials have been very careful to avoid being seen as allying with Washington,” said Michael Auslin, an expert on Asia at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.


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