Malaysia edging towards China with closer defense ties

Malaysia’s prime minister arrived in China on Monday with warm words for his hosts, a thirst for Chinese money and, for the first time, a promise of significantly closer defense ties with the purchase of Chinese naval ­coastal patrol ships.

Najib Razak called himself a “true friend” of China, determined to take their relationship to “new heights” — echoing the pro-China outreach by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte two weeks ago when he proclaimed a “separation” from his country’s longtime U.S.-oriented policies.

The twin nods toward China reinforce the regional narrative of American decline and China’s inexorable rise. They also showcase Beijing’s apparent ability to buy off rivals for disputed territory in the South China Sea, which China claims as its own despite strong objections from the Pentagon and U.S. allies in the region.

Euan Graham, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “In the maritime geopolitical aspect, it’s almost back to dominoes. The Philippines has caved, and Malaysia looks wobbly.”

China is Malaysia’s biggest trading partner, while tourism from China has rebounded after a slump in the wake of the disappearance of the Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in 2014.

Malaysia is China’s closest trading partner in Southeast Asia. The naval deal will add a significant security element to that relationship, experts said.

Part of the reason is domestic politics. Najib was once so close to President Obama that they spent a day playing golf together in Hawaii in 2014. But ties to the United States were strained in July after the Justice Department opened an investigation into alleged money laundering at a state investment fund linked to the Malaysian leader. That scandal has made Najib unwelcome in Western capitals and depressed Western investment in his country.

Najib will be discussing a high-speed rail project as well as real estate and energy deals with China, but it is his promise to sign “the first significant defense deal” between the two nations that comes as something of a surprise.

SOURCES- Washington Post