Using an asymmetry-authority framework, this article analyzes Malaysia’s engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, more broadly, Malaysia’s relations with China. Relations between the two countries were initially hostile, but changing external and internal conditions induced Malaysia to leverage power asymmetry to enhance and legitimize its ruling elites’ political authority. Thus, despite ongoing claims in the South China Sea and domestic discontent about China’s growing economic presence, successive Malaysian leaders have embraced China-backed infrastructure connectivity projects. Mahathir’s renegotiation of selected controversial projects in 2018–2019 and another change in federal government in March 2020 did not change this approach. I argue that this persistent (albeit fluctuating) embrace is a result of converging pathways of elite legitimation in Malaysia—that is, both development-based and identity-based legitimation, alongside patronage politics—that requires the Malay-dominated ruling elites to pragmatically embrace such foreign-backed infrastructure partnerships as China’s BRI. While democracy-based legitimation following the May 2018 elections necessitated Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government to suspend some projects and recalibrate Malaysia’s BRI receptivity, these changes were adjustments, not a departure from Malaysia’s pragmatic embrace.


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pp. 421-444
Launched on MUSE
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