Malaysia’s narrative on US-China trade war

It is interesting to note a number of salient points when Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong delivered his address at the 9th Beijing Xiangshan Forum that was held from October 20 to 22, 2019. The forum initially initiated by the China Association of Military Science (CAMS) in 2006 as a track 2 platform for Asia-Pacific security dialogue but more importantly it is considered as an alternative to the more well-known security forum called The Shangri-La Dialogue held annually in Singapore.

Both the Beijing and Singapore forum deals with discussion about Asia-Pacific security and defence and the attendees are very similar in nature but the narratives that came out from these two forum differ starkly. It is no secret that the introduction of the Xiangshan Forum is to rival the Shangri-La Dialogue that was introduced in 2002 by the UK International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Singapore government.

Why is that the two forum seen as rivals because the usual case is that at the Singapore forum, issues that are discussed usually related to regional disputes such as the South China Sea based on the western narratives meanwhile the Beijing forum became a platform to voice China’s views on similar issues.

This is where Chin Tong message at the forum became quite intriguing when he alluded that China should not use the ongoing war with the US as a pretext to exert their dominance over other nations especially Asian nations. He reiterated that instead of trying to exert its influence, Beijing should rather try to forge ties with other Asian nations who share a common interest with Beijing. Chin Tong also urged Beijing not to apply the ‘zero-sum’ strategy when dealing with other smaller nations, and this include Malaysia too.

The narrative postulate by the Deputy Defence Minister is quite interesting when tying up the trade war and China’s foreign policy strategy since adjustment were needed by both Washington and Beijing when the trade war don’t see any sign of ending. Both the US and China felt the brunt of the trade war and for the third quarter of this year China’s gross domestic product grew only by 6%, the weakest quarterly growth rate since 1992.

Facing with the full brunt of the ongoing trade war, China has been embarking with its very own economic reform and market opening that are crucial to solving the underlying problems behind the weak fundamentals of the Chinese economy. To integrate into the world economy, President Xi Jinping have been embarking market liberalisation, albeit Chinese style, in order to make Chinese companies and their products become more competitive in the global market. They just cannot depend on the lucrative American market anymore.

This is where Chin Tong narrative of Beijing’s ‘zero-sum’ strategy came into question since it does not fit very well into Xi’s open economy strategy. In fact few days after China reported a slower growth, Xi repeated his promise to keep opening up the nation’s markets to companies and investors from around the world. “The door of China’s opening up will only open wider and wider, the business environment will only get better and better, and the opportunities for global multinational companies will only be more and more,” he said in a congratulatory letter read out by Vice-Premier Han Zheng at the inaugural Qingdao Multinational Summit few days before the Xiangshan Forum.

China too has bought more from other nations, and especially from Belt and Road Initiatives nations and this include a number of Asian nations. And according to trade statistics put out by Beijing, Asean has surpassed the US to become China’s second largest trading partner after the EU. This demonstrate Xi’s strategy in opening new markets not only for foreign entity entering China but also for their business community investing outside is well received and it benefits both sides.

But again Chin Tong is right on the dot when he urged that China to create new rules for a multipolar world and not be defined as a China-US binary alone and the increased in trade between Asean and China is proof enough Beijing is creating new narratives with the trade war looming in the background.