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China, Malaysia pledge to narrow differences on South China Sea

China and Malaysia vowed to deepen cooperation on the ­disputed South China Sea on Tuesday as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak met Premier Li ­Keqiang in Beijing.

Li called on Malaysia and China to further consolidate their relationship, especially when it came to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as part of China’s efforts to win over member nations of the bloc.

“China would like to enhance communication and cooperation with Malaysia to further develop China-Asean relations,” Li was quoted as saying by state-run CCTV.

Najib said he ­believed his visit would bring ­bilateral ties between the two ­nations to a “new high”.

Malaysia had also agreed to buy four Chinese naval vessels, according to a report by Malaysian state media. The vessels are known as littoral mission ships, and are small craft that operate close to shore.

Two would be built in China and two in Malaysia, according to the report after the meeting ­between Li and Najib.

A number of other deals were signed between the two countries, including a memo of understanding on defence cooperation.

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Asked for details on the defence arrangement, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the two countries were “focusing on naval cooperation”, and that the deal “marks a big event in our bilateral ties”.

Najib is the third Asean leader to visit China recently, after Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xhan Phuc and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Singapore is currently the coordinator between China and Asean, but ties between Beijing and the city state are strained by the South China Sea disputes.

Chinese media have accused Singapore of playing up the maritime tensions in regional meetings, and officials in Beijing have said that Singapore should stay out of the disputes because it is not a claimant state.

“It is impossible for Singapore to become the mediator between China and Asean nations, especially in the South China Sea disputes, because it has a close relationship with the United States,” Du Jifeng, an analyst at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.

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“China and Malaysia both need each other, as China seeks a messenger in Asean in the South China Sea issues and Najib, who’s trapped in domestic political difficulty, is finding external help to consolidate his power base.”

The deal on defence cooperation signalled that Malaysia wanted to have closer military-to-military relations with China, Du added.

The two nations also signed the framework for the US$13.1 ­billion East Coast Railway Line, which will be China’s largest ­investment in Malaysia to date.

Najib is on a six-day visit to China, and is expected to meet President Xi Jinping on Thursday. The visit comes amid strained ties between Malaysia and the US after the Justice Department filed lawsuits linked to a money-laundering investigation at state-owned investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse