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Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad to meet China's Xi Jinping at sidelines of belt and road summit, as ties recover over ECRL project

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 18/4/2019 Tashny Sukumaran in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will be meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang separately when he visits Beijing for the Belt and Road Initiative Summit next week, said the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia on Thursday.

Mahathir will attend the summit opening on April 26, and speak at a discussion and a high-level meeting the next day, according to local media.

"Dr Mahathir will meet with Xi and Li separately on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Summit and Forum. At the bilateral meetings, the leaders will exchange views on bilateral issues, with the 45th anniversary of Malaysia-China relations in the background, and map out guidelines for further cooperation," Bai Tian was reported as saying by Malaysian daily The Star.

He was speaking from an embassy round table with Malaysian media, who also asked him about the whereabouts of fugitive financier Low Taek Jho, believed to be at the centre of a corruption scandal involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign wealth fund.

Last September, Mahathir said that he believed the billionaire businessman, who is wanted in several jurisdictions, was hiding in China. In January, Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun from the Royal Malaysian Police told reporters they were in contact with Interpol and Chinese authorities in an effort to track him down.

Bai Tian told reporters Chinese authorities had searched for Low last year at the Malaysian government's behest, but did not find him. He added Beijing was ready to act if any new information was found.

"According to the information provided by the Malaysian side ... (we) have done a very thorough and detailed search, but sorry to say [we didn't find him]," national news agency Bernama reported.

Low is believed to be the mastermind behind the 1MDB global financial scandal, which has seen several elected representatives and allies of the former ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, charged in court with abuse of power, money-laundering, and corruption.

Low is wanted by the US Department of Justice for conspiring to launder billions of dollars from the fund and bribing officials to turn a blind eye to misappropriations. He also has arrest warrants in Singapore and Malaysia.

Ties between Malaysia and China appear to be recovering from a recent rocky patch after Mahathir's government cancelled a host of Beijing-backed infrastructure megaprojects, citing high costs.

Over the past few months, officials from the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which took power last May, have flip-flopped over the controversial US$15 billion East Coast Rail Link project, with the premier saying the plans would "impoverish" the nation.

But the confirmed resumption of the ECRL project seems to have set the two nations back on track, after the cost was reduced by one-third, bringing the price tag to 44 billion ringgit (US$10.6 billion).

Mahathir also said Beijing was likely to buy more palm oil from his country in exchange for his government's decision to resume work on a Beijing-backed rail project following renegotiations.

"Malaysia and China's relation appears to enter another rosy stretch with the resumption of ECRL. We would look forward to more FDI [foreign direct investment] from China," said analyst Oh Ei Sun.

"Malaysia constitutes an almost indispensable element in China's Belt and Road Initiative. China is Malaysia's largest trading partner and hopefully more investments would be forthcoming," Oh said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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