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Malaysia-China rail project launched

KUALA LUMPUR (ANN/THE STRAITS TIMES) – In a significant milestone for Malaysia’s infrastructure development, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Chinese Premier Li Qiang officiated the groundbreaking ceremony of the Gombak terminal for the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) on June 19.

This event marked the highlight of Premier Li’s visit to Malaysia, during which 14 agreements for bilateral collaboration across various fields were signed.

Premier Li, the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Malaysia in nearly a decade, began his three-day official visit on June 18. His trip coincided with the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China, underscoring the deepening ties between the two nations.

The groundbreaking ceremony, held on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, symbolised Beijing’s strong support for the ambitious ECRL project.

Once completed, this rail link will connect the east and west coasts of Peninsular Malaysia, enhancing connectivity and economic integration within the region. Currently, the project is approximately 70 per cent complete.

Ahead of Li’s visit, Datuk Seri Anwar said Malaysia is ready to join Brics, the expanding bloc of emerging economies seen to be challenging the Western-led global order.

Brics, which originally comprised Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, doubled in size at the start of 2024 with the entry of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Egypt.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang (left) with Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in Putrajaya on June 19. PHOTO: ANN/THE STRAITS TIMES SOURCE

“We believe that it is in Malaysia’s strategic interests to forge amity and cooperation with China, not against it,” said Anwar on June 19, speaking at a dinner celebrating the two nations’ 50 years of ties attended by Premier Li.

“We make every effort to diplomatically engage China and integrate it into regional affairs, not because it is always straightforward, but because it is crucial for our shared future,” he added.

China has been Malaysia’s top trading partner for the past 15 years, with 2023’s total trade valued at MYR450.84 billion.

The MYR50.27 billion (SGD14.4 billion) ECRL is being built by a Chinese firm with loans from China’s Exim Bank. The 665km line will connect Malaysia’s main Port Klang in Selangor to the east coast states of Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan.

On June 10, Malaysia’s Transport Minister Anthony Loke said his ministry is exploring the possibility of extending the railway to join Thailand’s rail network, “paving the way for the ECRL to be part of the Pan-Asian rail network that can link Malaysia with China, realising the vision of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”.

On June 19, Li said China is willing to study a plan to connect the rail link to other China-backed railway projects in Laos and Thailand.

He said the proposal would make the central line of a proposed Pan-Asia Railway, running from Kunming in China to Singapore, a reality.

“This will better promote the construction of new international land and sea trade corridors, enhance regional connectivity, and deepen the building of the Asean community,” Mr Li said.

The ECRL is one of several BRI projects announced during the tenure of disgraced prime minister Najib Razak from 2009 to 2018.

Najib’s father Tun Razak Hussein, as prime minister, formalised diplomatic relations between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing on May 31, 1974.

The 14 memoranda of understanding signed on June 19 span the sharing of expertise in economy, tourism, trade and housing. The two countries also pledged to review visa-free travel arrangements.

A deal was also inked to allow Malaysia to export fresh durians to China starting in 2024, where it had been previously limited to durian products and frozen whole durians.

This will give Malaysia, one of the world’s biggest producers of the pungent fruit, a slice of the multibillion-dollar market for fresh durians in China already tapped by its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam.

Li met Mr Anwar in the administrative capital Putrajaya on June 19, and also had an audience with Malaysia’s King, Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, at the Istana Negara. He is slated to attend a luncheon with the business community from both countries on June 20 before concluding his official visit.