Mahathir Mohamad, the nonagenarian leader of Pakatan Harapan, the coalition of Malaysian opposition parties, led his party to a stunning victory in the general election last week.
The election was a typical exercise of democratic principles with defeat and victory being the two sides of the same coin. However, the election brought to the fore a familiar ring that is increasingly becoming a pattern across elections in the world: the China factor.
Mahathir Mohamad has made China a key theme of his campaign during the run up to the elections. He was riding a wave of people’s anger over Chinese investments in the country and has accused the former Prime Minister Najib Razak of selling out to China following a string of trade deals that put Malaysia at a massive economic disadvantage.
He criticized the bilateral deals for imposing an unsustainable debt burden on the country and pointed out that the major chunk of the benefits from the deals flow in only one direction: China.
Popular resentment and suspicion has been simmering in Malaysia towards China for some time over perceptions that China is using investments as a cover to expand its military and political influence in the region. And the anger became a rallying point during the elections that brought the ruling party a crumbling defeat.
This was not the first time that China has featured prominently in national elections of countries across the world. In 2015, Chinese investments and influence became an issue of critical importance in the Sri Lankan election that eventually cost the then prime minister of the country Mahinda Rajapaksa his victory.
Chinese investments in Sri Lanka have led to a perception among the general public of the island nation that it has brought misgovernance and deep-rooted corruption in the regime. It also injected an element of fear that China is engineering distress, dependency and political instability through unsustainable debts. These fears were confirmed last year when Sri Lanka had to formally hand over the Hambantota port to China for its failure to pay the debts.
Even during the last US presidential election campaign, the China factor stirred political debates. Then Presidential nominee Donald Trump made US trade deals with China, particularly the lopsided economic advantages that China enjoyed, a motif of his campaign. He eventually went on to win the election and upon assuming office imposed a series of sanctions on several Chinese companies.
In Australia, Chinese influence has transformed into something much more sinister and threatening. China has become a master at using economic pressure to blackmail Australia to gain political and security goals. Its tactics have been so outrageously successful that China has been able to control to some extent what ordinary Australians see at the movies, read in books or newspapers, or discuss in classrooms at universities.
However, the ruling party of Australia recently passed a bill aimed at limiting foreign (read Chinese) influence. It’s a reflection of the country waking up to what is happening and moving to push back against Chinese intrusions.
A similar wind of change is blowing all over the world against China’s overseas influence operations, be it Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, the far east, as well as Pakistan, the self-proclaimed all weather of friend of China.
European leaders have recently sounded alarm over the political cost of China’s economic investments in Europe. China’s Asian neighbors are also increasingly alarmed by Beijing’s economic diplomacy that threatens to thwart peace across the region.
Although China has stated that their investments are not and will never be ‘neocolonialism by stealth’, popular resentment and increasing suspicion among the general public and prudent measures by counterparts suggest otherwise. Therefore in all probability, it’s the end of an era of China’s economic imperialism.
Disclaimer: Views expressed here are that of the individual and does not necessarily reflect those of the Central Tibetan Administration.
*Jamphel Shonu is the editor of Tibet.net, CTA’s official news website and Tibetan Bulletin, the bi-monthly English magazine of the Central Tibetan Administration.