By Alan Chan

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia--In what should have been a consolatory meeting following a failed tour of the Pacific Island nations, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s June 5th visit to Malaysia’s Sabah state has sparked controversy and revealed a deepening rift between the two countries.

Wang Yi and his counterparts in 10 Pacific Island nations failed to reach consensus towards the end of May at talks on a sweeping security and trade deal amid concerns the proposal could “threaten regional stability”.

Following this much publicised trip of little value, substance or result, two-day Wang Yi stopped over in Sabah for a meeting with Deputy Chief Minister Jeffrey Kitingan who proceeded to post details and pictures of the meeting on his social media.

“China has expressed interest in Sabah's oil palm industry and its investment opportunities. Its Foreign Minister He Wang Yi said China was also ready to support any infrastructure development, that benefits both sides and contributes to the realisation of Sabah's dreams and aspirations,” according to media reports.

Conspicuously, the state news agency Bernama did not publish any news on the meeting or comments Wang Yi made on the oil palm industry. Chinese media based in Malaysia also ignored the visit as did the federal government, something unthinkable just a few years ago.

An important note is the fact that Sabah forms the north east part of Borneo island located in the South China Sea. Both it and the neighbouring state of Sarawak have been the subject of illegal Chinese maritime and aerospace intrusions.

Former Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Salahuddin Ayub warned that the visit and Wang Yi’s remarks played into a disturbing trend in which China seeks to get a stranglehold on countries through its investments and predatory business practices.

He said the experiences of countries like Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo proved that investments from China could end in the loss of assets, property and even national sovereignty, he warned following the visit.

Salahuddin added that the transfer of land to foreign nations would pose a threat to a country’s sovereignty. “Sabah’s strategic position in the struggle for influence and power in the South China Sea (between China and Western powers) also requires us to be more careful in evaluating and accepting investment offers from the country.”

He added that such a cautious approach was evident in Indonesia’s rejection of China’s request to own agricultural and plantation lands in their country.

“So, the government must be clear and firm in taking the same approach and continue maintaining close trade relations with China but only as a supplier and consumer,” he said.

The visit proved to be such an embarrassment that Jeffrey Kitingan had to deny it was an official one: "No. He didn't come here on an official capacity. He's here for a private visit. We didn't talk about official things."

While Malaysia continues to seek to balance its relationship with China and other powers, Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, interference in the country’s domestic politics and threat to food security through massive illegal fishing in the country’s waters is pushing Malaysia ever further from Beijing’s orbit.

While talk about China’s interest in Malaysia’s oil palm industry is uncomfortable for many, it is the constant harassment of Malaysia’s oil and gas projects in the South China Sea that could really fray relations between the two countries:

China has been contesting new Malaysian oil and gas development at the Kasawari field offshore Malaysia since early June with China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels harassing the project. The harassment also coincided with Chinese military planes entering Malaysia’s national airspace. (Beijing harasses Petronas gas project in South China Sea)

Such continuous Chinese intrusions and harassment are putting the government under pressure, which has in turn see Malaysia reaching out to seek alliances to bolster its position, signing up for  the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) with 13 other countries on May 23, including sevenl fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Notably Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, all seen as Chinese client states, have not joined the IPEF.

It is no coincidence that Malaysia has also taken a keen interest in multilateral security exercises in the South China Sea and beyond, including in the upcoming Exercise RIMPAC 2022 from June 29 to August 4, the world’s biggest naval exercise to date.