Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad might have raised eyebrows with his criticism of Chinese mega projects in his country and created uncertainty over bilateral ties with China, but relations look set to improve as the premier seeks to deepen economic links between both countries.
Tun Dr Mahathir, who is on a five-day visit to China, called on Malaysian businessmen yesterday to partner with Chinese companies to tap opportunities in the world's second-largest economy.
He also invited Chinese companies to invest in his country, adding that Malaysia wanted to learn from Chinese manufacturers.
At a business luncheon in Beijing with Malaysian corporate leaders, Dr Mahathir noted how Malaysian automaker Proton had trouble penetrating the Chinese market until it teamed up with its Chinese counterpart, Geely, reported The Star.
Dr Mahathir had visited the Geely headquarters in Hangzhou last Saturday, where both companies inked a deal that would allow Proton to tap its Chinese partner's technology and sell its cars in China.
The Malaysian premier pointed to how China began manufacturing cars a lot later than Malaysia, but has now outpaced the country, New Straits Times reported.
"They were not making cars when we were producing Proton. And now, their cars are of the same technological standards as European makes," he said.
Dr Mahathir arrived in Beijing from Hangzhou on Saturday night, where he was greeted on the tarmac by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The visit to China, the 93-year-old's longest official trip since he took power for the second time in May, is being keenly watched as Dr Mahathir's new government seeks to recalibrate relations with China.
Ties with China were rattled after Dr Mahathir's government questioned the viability of and suspended two major Chinese infrastructure projects in the country - the US$20 billion (S$27.4 billion) East Coast Rail Link and two gas pipelines worth US$2.3 billion.
Dr Mahathir, who has mentioned unwinding the projects, is expected to discuss the issue when he meets with top Chinese leaders today, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
At a forum yesterday with Chinese and Malaysian entrepreneurs, he was questioned over whether Chinese companies should continue investing in Malaysia under his administration, reported Bernama. "We're not against any Chinese company but against Malaysians who borrow huge sums of money to carry out unnecessary projects," said Dr Mahathir.
He said there are mutual benefits in having good relations and solving problems "not through confrontation but through negotiation, arbitration, and the court of law".
China is Malaysia's top trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting to US$67.7 billion last year.
Dr Mahathir has previously accused the ousted Najib Razak administration of "selling" Malaysia to China in return for help in settling government debts.
Malaysian businessmen The Straits Times spoke to at the forum said they hoped Dr Mahathir would help pave the way for Malaysian businesses to expand to China.
Mr Lucas Lim, director of MC Ocean International, which exports Malaysian food products to China, said Malaysia has a lot to offer, adding: "It's not just agriculture products like durians. China is getting wealthier and there is also a demand for health products like vitamins."
Mr Will Fung, chairman of the Malaysian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China, hopes the new government would give the Chinese the impression that Malaysia is a "much more transparent, better-regulated place for investment".
Yesterday, Dr Mahathir also visited Chinese drone maker DJI and attended a dinner for the wider Malaysian diaspora.