By Alan Ting
KUALA LUMPUR, May 31 (Bernama) -- Not many people know that it was a letter which started the ball rolling 35 years ago for the establishment of Malaysia-China diplomatic relations, now poised for further progress with the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to Beijing on Tuesday.
And the "Ping Pong Diplomacy" which led to the restoration of ties between China and the United States in 1971 was played out, albeit on a much smaller scale, in the forging of links between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.
The late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia's second prime minister and father of current prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, had written a letter to Zhou Enlai, the then prime minister of China, in 1971.
The letter was sent through Tan Sri Michael Chen, at that time the secretary-general of the Alliance Party - predecessor of the present Barisan Nasional (BN), when a Malaysian team participated in a table tennis (ping pong) tournament in China in September 1971.
"I gave Zhou Enlai the letter written by Tun Abdul Razak in his capacity as the president of the OCM (Olympic Council Of Malaysia)," Chen told Bernama.
After reading the letter, Zhou instructed China's minister of foreign affairs to meet Chen. Their meeting, of 45 minutes' duration at the minister's office, paved the way for serious thinking on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Three years later, Tun Abdul Razak made a historic visit to China and both Malaysia and China established diplomatic ties on May 31, 1974, thus opening a new chapter in bilateral relations.
Malaysia became the first member country of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to establish diplomatic relations with China.
"Tun Abdul Razak's visit stands out as perhaps the boldest initiative that Malaysia has ever taken in its eventful external policy," said Datuk Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, Chairman and CEO of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia.
"It was also among the most visionary, given the enormous benefits that continue to accrue not only for Malaysia but also to Asean, China and the wider region," he wrote in an article published in a local newspaper on Thursday.
He said that at a time when the Cold War was raging in the region, the estrangement between Communist China and non-Communist Asean was complete and the Chinese Communist Party was supporting the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), Malaysia's second prime minister defied conventional wisdom to ink a joint communique establishing diplomatic relations with China.
The other member countries of Asean then soon followed Malaysia's example to have ties with China, with the Philippines and Thailand in July 1975, Singapore in 1990 and Brunei in 1991. Indonesia, which had suspended diplomatic relations with China in October 1967, restored them in July 1990.
Mohamed Jawhar said Tun Abdul Razak's inspired action pioneered the bridging of the Cold War divide between Asean and China and set the scene for the blossoming of mutually productive relations between the largest power in the region and the countries of Southeast Asia.
Malaysia-China Friendship Association secretary Tan Kai Hee said China placed great emphasis on the personal touch and personal relationship and really appreciated the boldness of Tun Razak in establishing diplomatic relations with China.
"China very much appreciated what Tun Razak had done in establishing diplomatic relations with China when the country was isolated by the world at that time.
"That's why every new Chinese ambassador posted to Malaysia will invite (Tun Abdul Razak's widow) Tun Rahah (Mohd Noah) as a special guest to attend a dinner," he said.
Tan said China had invited Tun Rahah to visit China together with Najib and was making plans for Najib and his mother to visit the Great Wall of China, enabling her to reminisce the trip she had made with her husband Tun Abdul Razak 35 years ago.
Relations between Malaysia and China have seen an upward trend in the last 35 years in all areas.
Top leaders of both countries have participated in a constant exchange of visits. Chinese leaders who have visited Malaysia included Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, Zhu Rongji and Hu Jintao.
From the 1990s, Sino-Malaysia relations reached new levels of development with the close cooperation and contact extended to other areas such as trade, tourism, education, culture, science and health.
In 2000, the Bank of China set up a branch in Kuala Lumpur and, two years later, the People's Bank of China and Bank Negara Malaysia signed a bilateral currency exchange agreement.
On the international front, Malaysia and China shared similar views on many issues such as on Iraq and Palestine, terrorism, globalisation and regional security.
The Chinese economy has effectively become the engine of growth for the region. China is now Malaysia's fourth largest trading partner, with total trade expanding rapidly from RM53 billion in 2003 to RM130 billion last year.
By 2010, the trade volume between the two countries is expected to amount to or exceed US$50 billion (US$1 = RM3.48) with mutual investment constituting an important part in the bilateral economic and trade relations.
Although China, as with the rest of the world, has been affected by the global financial crisis, the fact remains that China is an economic power with the world's largest market.
With some 1.3 billion population and strong economic growth, China has provided one of the best markets for Malaysian products.
To further improve Malaysia-China relations, MCA President Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat was tasked with an important mission early this year -- to lay the groundwork for Najib's official visit to China.
His delegation compromised top industry captains and some prominent businessmen, including Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary and Tun Daim Zainuddin.
Following the trip, more air routes between Kuala Lumpur and Chinese cities and investment in Malaysian ports were approved. The possibility of the Bank of China assisting Malaysia's small and medium businessmen with loan facilities was also discussed.
"Halal" hub opportunities, with China's 22 million Muslims in mind, and scholarships for Muslim students are also in the offing while another unprecedented move is to get a top Chinese university to set up a branch campus in Johor.
With Najib's visit to Beijing on Tuesday, there will be plenty of opportunities for this friendship to reach new levels and the bilateral relations to be further enhanced.