Malaysia’s general election result had far-reaching consequences. As Mahathir prepares to loosen ties with China, what does that mean for the Philippines?
The dust continues to settle on Mohammad Mahathir’s unexpected return to power. Many Malaysians feel they have entered a new era. Will it herald one for its ASEAN neighbours?
With Mahathir keen to push back against China, Beijing may lose some influence in the region. Beijing may start to pivot more towards the Philippines. However, does that work for or against ASEAN?
There will likely now be a shift in Sino-Malay relations
Mahathir’s victory made politicians throughout the world sit up and take note. Those in Beijing must have expected to continue working with Najib Razak. Analysts repeatedly predicted another Barisan Nasional victory. Now China faces challenges to maintain its good relations with Malaysia.
The new government will examine the details of every deal Najib did. That will include deals with Chinese firms. He will lay out plans to prevent Malaysia from becoming a debt trap. China hopes to continue working with Malaysia. However, there will be some cooling of relations between Malaysia and China.
China has been down this road before with the Philippines
Chinese politicians would do well to remember the Philippines’ recent past. After his appointment in 2010, Benigno Aquino III launched anti-corruption investigations. Investigators focused on deals the previous administration made with China. Relations between the two countries suffered.
As a result, the Philippines under Aquino moved closer to the US. In turn, China worked to bring other nations into her sphere of influence. Aquino took a hard-line on the South China Sea. China turned to Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia. She offered loans, investment and assistance in return for hard influence.
The Philippines has moved closer to China
Rodrigo Duterte changed the picture. He rejected the US and shifted the Philippines back into China’s orbit. In Malaysia, China still carries significant favour with the general public. That is not the case in Manila and beyond.
According to Mahathir, Najib relinquished some of Malaysia’s sovereignty to China. Duterte has done the same in the Philippines. The country must pay back enormous loans. As China built more and more bases in the South China Sea, the Philippines did nothing. As the US expresses concern, Duterte remains committed to non-intervention.
Duterte feels empowered. He claims Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China would protect the Philippines. He claimed Xi told him he would ensure Duterte’s future as President.
Leading Filipino senators distanced themselves from his comments. They said the fate of the Philippines must not rest on the demands of others. Mahathir would likely approve of such sentiments. Nevertheless, China will not decide Duterte’s political future.
Mahathir will not stay silent on the South China Sea
During the latter stages of Najib’s time in office, Malaysia stayed out of the South China Sea dispute. Experts now claim China has control of the contested waters.
Duterte did not stand up for ASEAN against China during his presidency in 2017. Mahathir is unlikely to give China as smooth a ride in the region as his predecessor. Malaysia taking a harder line increases ASEAN’s strength against China.
However, Malaysia re-entering the South China Sea dispute could strain Malay-Filipino relations. Malaysia may feel less pressured to keep Beijing happy to secure funding. That could leave the Philippines more isolated among ASEAN than before. The country would be alongside only Cambodia and Laos. They may end up more reliant on China than before.
China now faces a backlash in Malaysia despite its long history of good relations. This situation is evidence of how influence and public sentiment shifts over time. The Philippines has moved far away from reliance on the US. China now occupies a dominant position – despite resentment among Filipinos.
China’s policy is working in the Philippines – for now
Before Malaysia’s general elections, China’s influence on ASEAN was growing. Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and the Philippines relied on her. Mahathir seems keen to reverse some of the previous administration’s work. If he succeeds, China’s chequebook diplomacy will take a hit.
Not so in the Philippines, where more loans and investment could come. It is clear that China’s diplomacy has worked better in the Philippines than anywhere else.
Although China has Duterte’s full support, that may not last. The lessons of history could explain why China – and Xi – is reluctant to see him leave.
ASEAN waits to see what impact Mahathir’s return has
For now, the Philippines can expect to maintain its good relationship with China. Little has changed since Mahathir’s return. At the same time, it is not clear how Malaysia’s relationship with China will change. Mahathir cannot make significant changes in the short-term. Nor is it clear what impact any change will have on China’s relationship with other ASEAN nations.
If Malaysia pushes back against China, there is no guarantee this will benefit others. China has proved that she will invest throughout ASEAN. She will invest whether a country supports her territorial claims or not.
In the meantime, Mahathir’s return to power puts the Philippines and China in an unusual position. The Philippines could challenge Malaysia as China’s leading partner in the region. However, doing so could leave them isolated. The Philippines may cede more influence and power. Duterte would argue that is a price worth paying. Mahathir and many Filipino subjects would disagree.