Malaysia sees its commitment to Asean as a strategic imperative in its engagement with other Asean member states and China, said International Trade and Industry Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz.
He noted that China is both Malaysia and Asean’s largest trading partner, adding that China and Asean — with their combined population of over two billion — can shape the trajectory of the Asian Century.
“In fact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) looks set to be a strong enabler for this. China witnessed a year-on-year trade increase of 15% with Asean in 2022, the first year that the RCEP went into effect.
“Our economic relationship has stood the test of some trying times. China-Asean bilateral trade even bucked the negative trend caused by the pandemic, jumping from US$641.5 billion in 2019 to US$975.3 billion in 2022,” Tengku Zafrul said in his address at the CGS China-Asean Business Leaders Summit here on Thursday (March 9).
The minister also highlighted that China was Malaysia’s top investor last year, with investments worth US$12.5 billion (RM55.4 billion).
As the region rebuilds its economies from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tengku Zafrul said Malaysia, together with China and Asean member states, may also consider establishing multilateral cooperation partnerships with other Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) participating countries.
This would help to facilitate the flow of goods, capital and services, he said, adding that Malaysia is ready to support the BRI with its skilled and multilingual talent pool.
The minister also proposed several key sectors that can be jointly explored for the mutual benefit of all parties.
This includes the financial as well as the halal markets, he said, noting that 20% of China’s huge population is unbanked, while 70% of Southeast Asia’s populace is either unbanked or underbanked.
“Surely, there are vast opportunities in this sphere. Also, in a region where 42% of the population are Muslims, Islamic finance and the halal industry remain relatively untapped for China-facing businesses, including in terms of the BRI,” he said.
To this end, he proposed a mutual recognition of each other’s halal certification, as a start, which would also ensure better cost-efficiency for small and medium enterprises.
China and Asean member countries could also work closely together in sectors such as environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) and clean energy, as well as the digital economy.
Tengku Zafrul highlighted that Malaysia’s policies are strong on all three scores, reflecting the country’s strong sustainability commitment, solid focus on digital technology as well as a mature and well-regulated financial market and halal ecosystem.
“As Malaysia’s new trade minister, I can say that we are determined to position Malaysia as pro-trade, pro-business, and pro-investment.
“I would, therefore, suggest that Malaysia has what it takes to be a prime, cost-efficient launching pad or support base for countries seeking to enter not only Southeast Asia but also the rest of Asia, including China,” he said.
Meanwhile, the minister said Malaysia is confident that the upgrading negotiations of the Asean-China Free Trade Area, which are expected to be concluded within two years, will also further strengthen the existing close ties, both at the bilateral and regional levels.
Touching on Asean’s neutrality principles, he said Malaysia will also continue to remain friendly with all its key trading partners.
“Furthermore, the relationship between Asean and China must always be one that is premised upon mutual trust and respect.
“We fervently hope that any potential feud of the great powers will not spill over into our borders. But we appreciate their presence in and commitment to our region, especially in business, investment and trade.
“It is our earnest hope that Southeast Asia can remain a zone of minimal conflict or hostility, and one that supports global cooperation, prosperity and peace,” he said.