China has again demonstrated its rising political clout in Southeast Asia—this time thumbing its nose at diplomats in Malaysia wanting to summon Beijing's ambassador in Kuala Lumpur over his alleged interference in domestic politics, according to diplomatic sources.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman had directed his officers last week to summon envoy Huang Huikang to seek an explanation over his statement that Beijing opposed any form of discrimination against races and would not tolerate violent demonstrations in Malaysia, which has been wracked by racially-charged events recently.
But Huang ignored the foreign ministry directive after private discussions with some Malaysian officials, reports said. Some see it as defiance and part of China's growing assertiveness amid its rising economic and political influence in the region.
Huang made the eyebrow-raising statement last week when he visited a predominantly ethnic Chinese district of Kuala Lumpur as ethnic Malay supporters of the government of embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak threatened to march through the area to protest alleged abuses by ethnic Chinese traders.
The planned protest at the Petaling Street district was aimed at countering a mammoth rally which attracted many urban Chinese people calling on Najib, the leader of the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party in the ruling coalition, to quit over a corruption scandal.
While some believe Huang’s statement may have led the organizers to scrap the protest, they questioned the Chinese approach of disregarding basic diplomacy.
Move to reverse diplomatic protocol
When Malaysian foreign ministry officials contacted the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur to summon Huang to the foreign ministry, his aides told them he was very busy, the diplomatic sources said.
Huang's aides instead demanded that the foreign ministry officers go to the embassy to see him in a bid to reverse a longstanding tradition in international diplomacy, the sources said.
Huang then went to lobby Ong Ka Ting, the special Malaysian envoy for China, and several Malaysian ministers, who decided to let Huang off the hook
One of the ministers, Nazri Abdul Aziz, has “admitted he made a mistake,” saying he had no intention to interfere in the foreign ministry’s affairs, The Star daily reported Tuesday.
It was not clear whether the ministers had consulted Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly, about their action to roll back foreign minister Anifah's decision, which has caused red faces among Malaysian diplomats taken aback by the sudden reversal by their political leadership.
"This is a big blow to Malaysia and national sovereignty," said a diplomatic source. "The Chinese influence appears to have reached the top echelons of power.”
Malaysian dailies reported that Huang met Domestic Trade Minister Zainuddin Hamzah for more than two hours on Monday and Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri for dinner a day earlier.
The local Sin Chew Jit Poh Chinese daily published a photo showing Nazri sitting opposite Huang at a rectangular dinner table, along with five other unidentified people.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Anifah, also in New York with Najib, is fuming over the move to rescind his decision.
"I am disappointed that some cabinet ministers had decided to take certain actions and make press statements without consulting me first," he said in a statement.
He said he had not canceled his instruction to call in Huang to the foreign ministry.
"Unfortunately, their (the ministers) interference has caused a negative perception in the eyes of the public,” Anifah said.
“As a sovereign state, we should convey our stand clearly to China," he said, stressing that he had consulted with Najib before making his decision.
While Anifah said he stood by his decision, it is unclear whether the foreign ministry would indeed officially summon Huang.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Huang's visit to Petaling Street during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival was a "normal" activity, stressing that Beijing "adheres to principles of peaceful coexistence" and "does not interfere in other countries' domestic politics or intervene in other countries' internal affairs."
"China and Malaysia are friendly neighbors, we hope that Malaysia can maintain national unity and stability and ethnic harmony," he said at a daily news briefing in Beijing , according to news agencies.
Malaysia-China relations have improved rapidly in recent years with bilateral trade burgeoning last year to US$101.98 billion, according to the Malaysian national news agency Bernama. Investments have also risen.
But close bilateral business ties should not stop Kuala Lumpur from ticking off China over any unbecoming behavior, some leading Malaysian politicians say.
"We need not be afraid to express our feelings for fear of jeopardizing economic relations and other interests that we cannot reprimand them when they go against diplomacy norms," Khairy Jamaluddin, the youth wing head of UMNO, was quoted saying.
He said Huang had no right to meddle in Malaysia's “internal” affairs.
Some Malaysian officials have also spoken against China's increasing encroachment into Malaysian waters in the disputed South China Sea.
Beijing’s increasingly assertive moves to press its sovereignty claims in the vast sea have raised concerns among its other neighbors and the United States too.
China has been accused in the past of using its extensive financial might over Cambodia, its key regional ally, to prevent any statement being adopted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the South China Sea that may be damaging to Beijing.
“We hope Malaysia does not succumb to similar pressure,” said one diplomat who has been closely following the latest diplomatic spat.