Fresh from a landslide by-election victory earlier this month that cemented his position as a ruling coalition lawmaker, veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim has stepped back into frontline politics and onto the world stage. The 71-year-old reform icon recently wrapped up a closely-watched three-day visit to China.

His trip comes amid speculation from certain quarters that Beijing has grown displeased over bilateral differences with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s administration, which has undertaken a strategic recalibration of ties with the world’s second-largest economy since clinching a surprise victory in May’s general election.

US$23 billion worth of Chinese-backed projects, including a coast-to-coast rail link and two gas pipelines, have since been cancelled or deferred by the Malaysian government, which accuses former premier Najib Razak’s scandal-and-corruption-besieged administration of unscrupulous borrowing to fund those projects.

Malaysia allowed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslim detainees, natives of China’s western Xinjiang province, to travel to Turkey in a bid to seek asylum earlier this month, defying a months-old request from Beijing for their repatriation on security grounds. China’s Foreign Ministry reacted in strong terms, saying it “resolutely” opposed the move.

Softer approach?

Beijing has attempted to accommodate the Mahathir-led government’s significantly more independent stance toward China to prevent the fraying of an important bilateral relationship. Anwar’s entry into the picture raises the question of whether the leader-in-waiting will continue Mahathir’s approach or, perhaps, chart a softer course.

Anwar is expected to succeed 93-year-old Mahathir, who has promised to step down within two years. His trip to Beijing, on the invitation of the International Department of the Communist Party of China, helped to give Malaysia’s largest trade partner a chance to test the waters and start the process of building personal ties with the veteran politician.

“Anwar’s visit comes at a critical juncture for relations between Malaysia and China,” wrote Yusmadi Yusoff, a Malaysian senator and international affairs aide to Anwar, in an analysis carried by several regional publications in conjunction with the trip, the first he has taken overseas since being sworn into parliament on October 15.

“Beijing will be keen to learn and understand the nuances of a leader it will soon be dealing with and Anwar will be keen to do the same. As such, the tenor of his visit carries a simple yet profound message – one of inclusivity,” says the editorial, which underscored the “longstanding shared cultural and historical values” of both sides.

Centuries of engagement

Themes of inclusivity and centuries of engagement appear to be more easy-going than rhetoric favored by Mahathir, who cautioned against the prospect of a “new version of colonialism” emerging as a result of certain lopsided deals, while his opposition to real estate projects catering to mainland Chinese buyers has slid into hawkishness.

Yusmadi claims that Malaysia’s decision to review big-ticket Chinese-backed projects “should not be misconstrued as dialling back years of positive relations,” shifting the burden of responsibility onto Najib for the “irresponsible” financial structuring of the projects, which would have cost taxpayers billions.

It also described Anwar as “the ideal person to convey concerns about the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims,” calling the move to relocate Uighur Muslims as “a strong indicator of Malaysia’s future foreign policy direction – one that is morally ethical and will not forsake the country’s standing as a global leader in moderate Islam.”

China is accused of arbitrarily detaining tens of thousands of Uighurs in its far western province, though it maintains those held are minor criminals that are made to undergo vocational education and training programs as countermeasures against religious extremism. It denies any ill-treatment of its citizens.

Despite registering a diplomatic protest over Muslim-majority Malaysia’s decision to send the 11 Uighurs to Turkey, it is unclear whether any action might be taken in response. Chinese diplomats are likely to recognize the domestic political importance of Malaysian leaders’ activist stance on issues concerning the plight of global Muslims.

Meeting with Wang

Beijing appears to have wagered that the best response is to double-down on diplomacy. During his trip, Anwar met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, which observers noted was out of the ordinary considering Anwar has not yet taken any official position in the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition.

No stranger to the university lecture circuit, the veteran politician was invited to speak at Beijing’s Renmin University, among the country’s most prestigious universities, where he gave a lecture titled, “Malaysia’s Legal System and the Future of China-Malaysia Relations”, during which he praised China’s potential as a “great partner in development.”

During his lecture, Anwar reportedly claimed that China had become the envy of other countries owing to its success as a global superpower, and leading others to regard Beijing as a rival. He took a swipe at the United States for launching a trade war with China despite having “promoted free trade for hundreds of years.”

Discussing the use of Sharia law in Malaysia, which he described as misrepresented by people who propagate violence, Anwar claimed there was “no sense in being religious if we don’t believe in peace.” He also underscored the importance of the rule of law and good governance, which he said Pakatan Harapan’s leadership would abide by.

“Anwar’s approach to China appears to align well with Mahathir’s own approach,” says Amrita Malhi, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, who believes both Malaysia and China now wish to move past bilateral differences that followed an election campaign in May that struck some as an anti-China revolt.

The campaign “was really driven by Malaysian domestic politics,” she said. “At the same time, Anwar is pitching his trademark message of inclusiveness as a way to highlight historical Malaysia-China ties and reset their relationship on new, win-win terms, without the pressure of the expensive contracts.”