Malaysia’s relationship with China can be difficult to gauge. Official narratives from both sides often stress the long history of bilateral friendship and cooperation. While these narratives are somewhat exaggerated, they are not entirely fabricated. Robust bilateral trade, investment, and people-to-people ties have supported cordial bilateral relations in recent decades, as public polling data has shown.1

These signs of affinity do not mean, however, that there are no contentious issues between Malaysia and China, nor that Malaysia’s leaders always defer to China and refrain from publicly criticizing Beijing. But Malaysian criticisms of China have often been mild and secondary to an overall theme of enduring friendship. Different Malaysian administrations have maintained this same pattern, albeit to varying degrees, for three decades.

Yet this apparent amity also cloaks real and growing unease about Beijing’s assertiveness and even brashness among many Malaysian officials and some of the country’s citizens.2 For now, Malaysia remains committed to maintaining public displays of friendly relations with China while handling any differences quietly. But the difficulties and pressures of keeping the friendship real, alive, and substantive are greater than ever. The South China Sea dispute, in particular, threatens to unravel the narrative of friendship if either side fails to deal with it carefully.

A Friendship Slowly Born

When Malaya (later Malaysia) was born out of the British Empire in 1957, the Cold War was in full swing in Asia.3 The first prime minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, saw the Communist-led People’s Republic of China as the most significant existential threat to Malaya, which was then fighting a domestic insurgency waged by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). Malaya’s communist insurgents shared a very close ideological affinity with the Chinese Communist Party.

Ngeow Chow Bing
Ngeow Chow Bing is director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya. He is the editor of Researching China in Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2019). In 2019, he spent a month in Beijing as a visiting scholar at China Foreign Affairs University.

Malaya became Malaysia in 1963, joining with Singapore and the two Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak (although Singapore was separated from Malaysia two years later). The creation of Malaysia brought the country into another serious but contained armed conflict, the Konfrontasi (Confrontation) with Sukarno-led Indonesia, which also enjoyed the ideological and diplomatic support of China.

Typical of the belligerent rhetoric at that time, the official Chinese press condemned the creation of Malaysia as an imperialist plot to prolong colonial dominance of the region. Adding to these ideological and geopolitical tensions was the large ethnic Chinese population in Malaysia (which then constituted around 30 to 40 percent of the total population).4 Some indigenous Malay nationalists viewed Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese citizens as potential fifth-columnist turncoats eager to serve Beijing’s interests. The government did not go that far, but there were fears that regular contact between the Chinese in Malaysia and China would supposedly turn the former into communist sympathizers. Travel restrictions to China were put in place on all citizens of Malaysia, but these measures particularly affected Chinese Malaysians.

Rapprochement between Malaysia and China began in the early 1970s, driven by the second Malaysian prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein. Razak had served as the deputy prime minister under Tunku, but upon taking power in 1970, he radically overturned Tunku’s pro-Western foreign policy orientation.

Several international developments in the late 1960s and early 1970s caused Razak and his advisers to fundamentally reassess the efficacy of a pro-Western Malaysian foreign policy. In 1968, the British government announced that it would withdraw its troops from east of the Suez Canal by 1971. And in 1969, the United States announced the Guam Doctrine (or the Nixon Doctrine), indicating the gradual scaling down of its military involvement in East Asia. In the judgment of Razak and his advisers, Malaysia, which had been dependent on British military protection and supportive of the United States’ role in the Vietnam War to maintain U.S. engagement in the region, would now have to adjust to new geopolitical realities. Slowly, Malaysia started to build diplomatic ties with Asia’s Communist-led countries beginning in the early 1970s.

At the same time, U.S.-China rapprochement in the wake of visits to China by then U.S. national security adviser Henry Kissinger (in 1971) and then U.S. president Richard Nixon (in 1972) and the admission of the People’s Republic of China into the United Nations also deradicalized Chinese foreign policy. Starting in the early 1970s, state-run Chinese media outlets began referring to the country as “Malaysia,” an indication that Beijing no longer objected to the Malaysia merger of 1963. In 1972, China also supported the position of Malaysia and Indonesia when the issue of the “internationalization” of the Malacca Straits was raised by Japan and the Soviet Union.5

These mutual adjustments and concessions finally culminated in the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China in May 1974, when Razak visited China. Malaysia was arguably the first member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to establish diplomatic ties with Communist-led China.6 Whereas containing communism and distrust of China drove ASEAN’s agenda early on, Malaysia’s pioneering diplomatic outreach to China in the 1970s tamped down this hostility markedly. In the 1980s, China was even seen as a useful check to counterbalance Vietnam’s regional clout, though Beijing remained seen as a potential (albeit less immediate) threat. Despite the 1974 breakthrough, Malaysia’s relations with China remained cautious and reserved throughout much of the 1980s, and restrictions on people-to-people exchanges stayed in place.

Only in the 1990s did bilateral relations really start to take off. The peace agreement the Malaysian government signed with the CPM in 1989, the end of the Cold War, and China’s continued reform-and-opening-up agenda promised a new beginning. During this period, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s fourth (and later seventh) prime minister, saw China more in terms of opportunities than risks.

Throughout his tenure, he frequently dispatched trade missions to China. One of those delegations took place just weeks after the brutal crackdown on the protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, a gesture that earned Malaysia Chinese goodwill. Yao Yilin, who was then the vice premier of China, described the Malaysian trade mission as one embodying “huannan zhijiao” (a phrase akin to the English proverb “a friend in need is a friend indeed”).7 The Malaysian government also encouraged the country’s ethnic Chinese population, no longer seen as a potential fifth column, to rebuild ties with and reach out to China to foster more business opportunities.

The end of the Cold War removed China as an ideological threat to Malaysia, but a different security challenge emerged in the post–Cold War era: Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. Malaysian defense officials anxiously watched China defeat Vietnam in the Battle of the Johnson South Reef in 1988. A well-known Malaysian security expert wrote, “Malaysia has, and will in the foreseeable future, regard China as its greatest threat.” In 1992, the then Malaysian chief of defense forces also said, “the Malaysian Armed Forces will fight to the end to protect the nation’s sovereignty should there be any use of force by countries claiming ownership of the Spratly archipelago,” and he warned ASEAN to be “wary of China’s military expansion.”

But Mahathir ultimately rejected the view that China posed a threat to Malaysia. He said, “we do not look at China as our potential enemy. We look at China as a country which has a great potential for becoming an economic power.” He welcomed the prospect of China playing a larger role in Southeast Asia. Mahathir invited Beijing to attend a 1991 ASEAN meeting in Kuala Lumpur and begin a dialogue relationship with the bloc.

The move was significant. In the immediate wake of the Cold War, both ASEAN and China had been uncertain how to approach each other. China was still unfamiliar with and even suspicious of the kind of regional multilateral setting ASEAN exemplified, while ASEAN was also uncertain how to define its relationship with China going forward. Malaysia’s early decision to engage China through ASEAN proved critical, as Beijing learned the rules and norms of multilateralism, while ASEAN made attempts to socialize China, so to speak, to the rules of the game for multilateralism. The small meeting in 1991 developed into a more formalized dialogue partnership in 1996, paving the way for a productive China-ASEAN relationship to evolve in the decades to come.

Other developments also solidified friendly Malaysia-China ties. Mahathir shared China’s dislike for the West’s focus on democracy and human rights and found solidarity on the basis of collectivist “Asian values” in contrast to individualistic Western ones. Mahathir’s proposed trade bloc of an East Asian Economic Group (excluding Australia and the United States) received mostly lukewarm support from Asian countries except for China. Throughout the 1990s, Malaysia and China shared a similar vision for greater East Asian regional integration, and both sides blamed the United States for obstructing its progress.

The Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s further turned Mahathir against the United States, as he blamed U.S.-based financial speculators for the crisis. He was also disappointed with Japan’s slow and cautious response, but he appreciated Chinese support during the economic downturn. In 1999, Malaysia signed a framework agreement for comprehensive bilateral cooperation with China, the two countries’ first significant bilateral deal since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1974. When Mahathir left office in 2003, China considered him a “good friend,” and the feeling was mutual.

After Mahathir left office, his successors not only continued but also enhanced the China-friendly policies he initiated. In 2004, Malaysia and China signed their second joint communique and committed to have “greater cooperation . . . in strategic areas.” In 2013, they defined the bilateral relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Bilateral trade boomed. China displaced Singapore as Malaysia’s largest trading partner in 2009 and has remained in that position ever since. For years, Malaysia was China’s largest trading partner in ASEAN (and China’s third-largest trading partner in Asia) until 2017, when it was overtaken by Vietnam. Over the years, China has been among the most frequently visited countries by successive Malaysian prime ministers, cabinet ministers, and state leaders. The opening of more consulates in cities beyond Beijing and Kuala Lumpur and the approval of more direct air links between the two countries have testified to the dynamism of China-Malaysia societal exchanges.

In 2011, before an official visit to Malaysia, then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao pointed out two events that he said China would always remember and appreciate about Malaysia: the countries’ 1974 diplomatic rapprochement and Malaysia’s 1991 invitation for China to join the ASEAN meeting. Malaysia’s two transformative moves had implications far beyond bilateral relations, positively influencing the development of China-ASEAN relations and earning Malaysia substantial goodwill from China. These events laid the foundation for the China-Malaysia friendship narratives that would follow. A myth of a supposedly special friendship between Malaysia and China even developed, and (for a time) appeared to be quite real.

A Friendship Tested

When China’s “good friend” Mahathir again won power in May 2018, China was (ironically enough) less than happy. Much had changed since the early 2000s. The prime minister whom Mahathir toppled in 2018, Najib Abdul Razak (the son of the country’s second prime minister), did much to drive China-Malaysia relations to new (albeit sometimes precarious) heights during his tenure from 2009 to 2018. He approved the two countries’ comprehensive strategic partnership, endorsed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while courting ever more Chinese investment, and facilitated greater military-to-military ties by holding combined military exercises and procuring Chinese-made weapon systems. In addition, he encouraged more cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and he embraced Chinese technology companies’ entry into Malaysia. Najib arguably not only continued Mahathir’s China-friendly policies but brought the relationship to its peak.

Coincidentally, China also became more assertive in the South China Sea starting in around 2009. Since the early 2010s, the presence of Chinese vessels in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone has grown, and the China Coast Guard has maintained almost a constant presence around Luconia Shoals (located around 80 nautical miles off the coast of Malaysia’s state of Sarawak) since 2014. Despite these Chinese incursions throughout his tenure as prime minister, Najib sought to downplay Chinese maritime assertiveness and separate the South China Sea issue from his administration’s pursuit of closer relations with China. Notwithstanding some occasional (and rare) criticisms of China by members of his cabinet, Najib seemed to be an even better friend to China than Mahathir had been.

In contrast, by then Mahathir had become more of a critic of China. In 2015, he broke with his former protégé Najib and came out of retirement to lead the political opposition—Pakatan Harapan (PH) or the Hope Alliance. Mahathir criticized Najib for becoming too subservient to China and said that the large China-financed infrastructure and development projects that Najib approved did not benefit Malaysia.

The most troubling project was the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a flagship BRI project contracted to a Chinese state-owned construction company and financed with a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. Critics complained that the project and its funding terms were negotiated without adequate transparency, posed a financial burden to Malaysia, had dubious commercial viability, and carried an inflated price tag. Even within the Malaysian political establishment, there were quiet, but growing, worries that Najib could compromise Malaysia’s institutional integrity or even its sovereignty with his fervent courtship of Chinese investment.

Mahathir and the PH’s rise to power in May 2018 led to one of the most fraught periods in Malaysia-China relations since the 1990s. The ECRL, along with two China-financed oil and gas pipeline projects, were suspended soon after Mahathir’s inauguration. He visited China three months after his electoral victory but did not manage to strike an agreement with Beijing on the ECRL or pipeline projects during the trip. Instead, in a joint press conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, he spoke about “a new version of colonialism”; while he did not explicitly mention China, his words were enough to make Li visibly unhappy. While still in Beijing, Mahathir also announced the cancelation of the ECRL, further aggravating China. These moves rattled the confidence of Chinese investors.

It is important to keep in perspective, however, that Mahathir and the PH government never questioned that Malaysia needed to maintain good ties with China. After all, the 2018 election was not primarily a referendum on Malaysia’s relationship with China, as it was sometimes portrayed in foreign media coverage. Malaysian voters rejected Najib mostly because of domestic issues such as corruption and rising living costs.

In addition, Mahathir’s critical remarks on China contained a palpable ambivalence. He always saved his strongest attacks for Najib, and he was always careful not to go too far in criticizing China. He treated the ECRL as an unfortunate anomaly arising primarily from the incompetence and greed of Najib that needed to be professionally handled and resolved. Mahathir did not accuse China of engaging in systematic predatory lending or so-called debt-trap diplomacy, both popular accusations at the time. He also pushed back against the “anti-China” label that was sometimes ascribed to him.

While redressing the failing aspects of Najib’s China policy, Mahathir continued the beneficial aspects of bilateral cooperation. Even the seemingly canceled ECRL project was eventually restored after renegotiations. (The announcement of its cancelation actually injected momentum for further negotiations.) Despite lingering reservations from certain quarters in Malaysia, the renegotiated ECRL (with a reduced price tag and new arrangements that would benefit Malaysia more) was now presented by the Mahathir government as a win-win solution that pleased both governments, the contractors, and local communities. Strongly critical of the ECRL before assuming power, the PH government sang a very different tune after these renegotiations. Saving the ECRL was a huge relief for China too, as it provided a positive example of how China and a BRI partner could overcome their differences.

The settlement of the ECRL issue in April 2019 stabilized Malaysia-China relations. The atmosphere of Mahathir’s second visit to China, soon after the announcement of the ECRL revival, was much different and more positive than his first trip. Mahathir spoke highly of the BRI and reiterated Malaysia’s supportive stance, though he also seemed to think any future BRI projects should be negotiated more carefully than those brokered by Najib. He also saw Chinese investment and technological capabilities as opportunities for Malaysia. He remained a classic advocate of modernization who believed his country’s economic health lay in the industrial and technology sectors, and he welcomed Chinese investment in these areas to drive Malaysia’s economic development. More cabinet-level visits between the two countries soon followed Mahathir’s second visit to China. After April 2019, both countries seemed primed and eager to pursue stronger engagement going forward.

On the South China Sea dispute, Mahathir largely dashed expectations that he would become more openly critical of Chinese actions. In many respects, he effectively maintained the same posture as the previous government by quietly insulating bilateral cooperation from the contentious issue. In September 2019, Malaysia also reportedly agreed to set up with China a bilateral consultative mechanism, which has always been Beijing’s preferred mode of managing South China Sea disputes.

That said, the PH government was publicly somewhat more critical of China, as then foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah dismissed China’s nine-dash line and its territorial claims in the South China Sea as “ridiculous.” In addition, Malaysia also subtly took a more assertive stand in other ways. In December 2019, the Mahathir administration authorized a new submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, asserting its claim to an external continental shelf in the South China Sea, which immediately prompted China to issue a protest note to the same commission.

Months earlier, the Mahathir-led government also approved an oil and gas surveying operation by the West Capella, a drillship contracted by the Malaysian national oil company Petronas, an operation that took place in an area claimed by both Vietnam and China. (The West Capella operation would later develop into a larger standoff in April 2020.) These decisions reflected the PH government’s determination to protect its interests and claims in the South China Sea, but its overall approach toward China was still nonconfrontational.

Soon after taking office, Mahathir and the PH government also faced a highly sensitive human rights crisis: the internment camps and other forms of repression that Chinese authorities have used against Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang. During the Najib years, Malaysia was already a destination or a transit point for an unknown number of Uighurs fleeing persecution in China. The Najib administration reportedly acquiesced to Chinese requests on multiple occasions to repatriate some Uighurs back to China. Mahathir’s administration discontinued that degree of cooperation, and on at least one occasion it defied the request when Beijing asked Kuala Lumpur to send back some Uighurs. But Mahathir’s government was unwilling to speak out on the issue despite the image Mahathir cultivated throughout his political career as a spokesperson for oppressed Muslims, including those in Palestine and Bosnia.

Mahathir had to tread carefully on this issue. He likely did not want to further complicate ties with China amid the ECRL negotiations, and he was undoubtedly conscious that Xinjiang had become a central aspect of the U.S.-China rivalry, into which Malaysia did not (and does not) want to be drawn. The Malaysian government’s unwillingness to loudly voice concerns on Xinjiang notwithstanding, the country’s predominantly Muslim Malay community has become increasingly disillusioned with China’s behavior. While the PH government ultimately reaffirmed the friendship narrative, the Malay community has grown more skeptical of Beijing.

A Friendship Tested Again

The PH coalition’s internal bickering ultimately led to its collapse in late February 2020. In its place rose arguably the most Malay-centric coalition government in Malaysian history, the Perikatan Nasional (PN)—or National Pact—government, led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The PN government came to power amid the coronavirus pandemic and soon had to focus its energy on battling the public health crisis. Despite the rhetoric of a grand “Malay unity” coalition, the PN has already endured much infighting, and it may well end up being as short-lived as its predecessor.

Muhyiddin built his political career almost entirely on domestic issues and is not known to have a strong interest in foreign policy. These factors suggest that Muhyiddin may be a more inward-looking prime minister and somewhat detached from foreign affairs, which could allow his foreign minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, to have a greater hand in overseeing the country’s diplomatic portfolio. Hishammuddin’s appointment is likely to be well received by Beijing. He is an experienced politician who served in Najib’s cabinet as defense minister, and he was instrumental to advancing China-Malaysia military-to-military relations before 2018. On becoming foreign minister, Hishammuddin spoke of his role in “repair[ing] . . . relations” with countries that the PH government was accused of having poor relations with, including China, India, and Saudi Arabia.

Notably, the first quasi-diplomatic crisis of the PN government involved Chinese actions in the South China Sea in April 2020. As mentioned earlier, the Mahathir-authorized West Capella operation took place in waters claimed by Vietnam and China, prompting objections from both countries. Although both Beijing and Hanoi sent ships to shadow the West Capella early on, it was after Beijing sent the surveying vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 to the disputed site in mid-April that reports of a China-Malaysia “standoff” quickly spread.

On one level, Malaysian officials made clear they had no intention of heightening the drama. When the U.S. Navy sent uninvited warships (accompanied by an Australian navy vessel) to nearby waters in mid-April, in an apparent move to support Malaysia, the Malaysian government did not receive the gesture well, at least in public. Hishammuddin released a statement on April 23 that distanced Malaysia from the U.S. naval deployment. In this instance, Malaysian leaders clearly preferred deescalation. The episode ended in early May after the West Capella completed its work and left, and then China withdrew the Haiyang Dizhi 8. On July 16, Hishammuddin released a cautious response days after then U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo released a statement rejecting China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Yet there are other signs that Malaysia will not simply and meekly acquiesce to China’s wishes in the South China Sea. In late July 2020, Malaysia submitted an unusually blunt memo to the UN Commission on the Limits on the Continental Shelf, which stated “Malaysia rejects China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights and jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dashed line.’” The memo went on to say, “Malaysia considers that the People’s Republic of China’s claim to the maritime features in the South China Sea has no basis under international law.” The timing of this document’s release prompted Chinese suspicions that it was purposely meant to echo Pompeo’s statement.

On the other hand, as the pandemic unfolded, China’s public health assistance helped Malaysia fight the virus. Just a few days before the West Capella episode, Beijing dispatched a medical advisory team to assist Kuala Lumpur. In March and May 2020, China donated two batches of medical equipment including over 1 million masks, 70,000 pieces of personal protective equipment, 150,000 test kits, and 200 ventilators. In November, Malaysia and China signed a joint agreement on vaccine cooperation and development. The government is currently using China’s Sinovac, Pfizer/BioNTech, and AstraZeneca for its vaccination program. As of early June 2021, Malaysia had received more than 3 million doses of the Sinovac shot. Kuala Lumpur has also conditionally approved another vaccine developed by CanSinoBio, a Chinese company, for emergency use.

Mutual visits of top officials also took place amid the pandemic. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe made an impromptu trip to Malaysia in early September 2020, the first visit by a senior Chinese government official to Malaysia since the PN government was inaugurated. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited a month later and issued a joint statement with Hishammuddin.

The statement reaffirmed all the usual talking points of the prevailing friendship narratives. Both countries reaffirmed cooperation on fighting the pandemic and on the Belt and Road Initiative. On the South China Sea, it repeated familiar refrains from similar past statements, but also contained a new sentence: “Both sides agreed to enhance dialogue on maritime affairs and promote practical maritime cooperation.” This passage suggests that the 2019 bilateral consultation mechanism is not yet entirely dead, despite its punishingly slow progress.

Hishammuddin also paid a reciprocal visit to China in early April 2021 and signed a memorandum of understanding with China designed to create a committee to facilitate further bilateral cooperation in the post-pandemic era. Both countries were committed to several cooperative projects related to the pandemic and the economy. An otherwise normal visit, however, became highly controversial when Hishammuddin apparently referred to China as an “elder brother” in the press conference. The remark elicited significant backlash in Malaysia. Although Hishammuddin later clarified that his “elder brother” remark was referring to Wang Yi as a senior diplomat, not China as a country, the backlash against the remark reflected exactly the growing uneasiness many Malaysians have felt toward China.

Barely two months after the controversial “elder brother” remark, another disturbing incident over the South China Sea occurred. On May 31, 2021, sixteen Chinese military transport aircrafts in a tactical formation entered the airspace above Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. (Ironically, this happened on the forty-seventh anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and celebratory programs were already underway.) The Malaysian Air Force was forced to scramble a squadron of fighter jets to warn them away.

On June 1, Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded statement protesting Chinese actions, accusing China of undermining Malaysia’s sovereignty, and summoning the Chinese ambassador to provide an explanation. To close, the statement reads: “Malaysia’s stand is clear - having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise our national security. Malaysia remains steadfast in defending our dignity and our sovereignty.” Although China explained that its military aircraft were only conducting routine exercises, this explanation convinced few Malaysians.

Malaysia dispatched Deputy Foreign Minister Kamarudin Jaffar to China just a few days later to attend the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Chongqing. (Hishammuddin planned to go but had to quarantine after coming into close contact with a COVID-19 patient.) Kamarudin conveyed Malaysia’s concerns over the aircraft incident to Wang, and early signs suggest that both governments want to move on. On June 23, Hishammuddin attended the China-organized Asia and Pacific High-Level Video Conference on Belt and Road Cooperation, delivering a speech reaffirming Malaysia’s support for the BRI. That the PN government has sought to downplay and contain the South China Sea dispute with China again is consistent with Malaysia’s long-established patterns of maintaining friendly relations with China.

That said, more and more Malaysians now view the Chinese government much more critically. The presence of China Coast Guard vessels around Luconia Shoals since 2014 has punctured the myth of the supposedly special China-Malaysia friendship, and both the West Capella episode and the military aircraft incident were further blows to positive bilateral sentiments, alienating and disheartening growing segments of the Malaysian public and large swaths of the country’s security and foreign policy establishment.

A Friendship Not Quite Awry But Off-Kilter

In realist accounts of international relations, it is preposterous to take the notion of friendship between sovereign states seriously. Instead, the oft-misattributed dictum that countries have “no permanent friends or enemies, only interests” should be embraced. Malaysia likes to tell the world that it is a “friend to all and an enemy to none,” as Mahathir put it in a 2018 speech. Nonetheless, realist scholars argue that there is no such thing and that all countries hedge diplomatically to some extent.

Even so, international relations are, after all, based on human relations. Narratives are important, insofar as they shape people’s emotions, values, and identities. A relationship infused with a sense of friendship does foster stronger trust and cooperation, potentially leading to mutual benefits. But there is also a danger when friendship narratives are artificially inflated, resulting in a false picture of where relations really are or where they should be. Even a genuine friendship can turn toxic.

In the past several years, more and more pressure, primarily but not solely driven by the South China Sea dispute, has accumulated between China and Malaysia, testing the two countries’ carefully constructed friendship narratives. Any future events reminiscent of the West Capella episode or the military aircraft incident would further hollow out the remaining positive sentiments. For now, however, the friendship narratives endure, and Malaysia-China relations have not yet gone awry. Nonetheless, the relationship has grown cooler and perhaps more realistic.

Ngeow Chow Bing is director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya. He is the editor of Researching China in Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2019). In 2019, he spent a month in Beijing as a visiting scholar at China Foreign Affairs University.


1 The Global Attitudes and Trends Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that, from 2013 to 2015, the Malaysian public consistently held positive views of China. (The survey stopped including responses from Malaysians after 2015.)

2 The elite survey carried out by the Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore shows that from 2019 to 2020, Malaysian respondents who answered “China” to the question “If ASEAN were forced to align itself with one of the two strategic rivals (China and the US), which should it choose?” declined from 60.7 percent to 47 percent.

3 Malaya consists of the Malay Peninsula. This was the first territory of present-day Malaysia to receive independence from the British government.

4 In 1970, the ethnically Chinese population in Malaysia constituted 35.6 percent.

5 In March 1972, the Soviet Union and Japan jointly declared that the Malacca Straits should be “internationalized,” meaning that the straits should be turned into international waters. Malaysia and Indonesia strongly opposed the “internationalization” of the straits.

6 Indonesia technically established ties with Communist-led China earlier but then temporarily broke off relations from 1967 until 1990.

7 See “Mazhong shi huannan zhijiao” [Malaysia and China are friends in deed], Nanyang Siang Pau, July 27, 1989.

8 See “Zhongma shi hao xiongdi” [China and Malaysia are good brothers], Sin Chew Daily, April 27, 2001.