In most ways, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s four-day visit to Beijing last week stuck to what’s becoming the standard script for visiting leaders from China’s weaker neighbors. Mahathir praised China’s development model and asked for Beijing’s support in helping shore up Malaysia’s economic problems at home. And like his counterparts across Southeast Asia, Mahathir didn’t leave empty-handed; the two sides inked several deals, including a bilateral currency swap agreement and a Chinese pledge to import Malaysian palm oil and agricultural products. This script may seem to echo elements of Imperial China’s tributary system, in which peripheral vassal states would seek trade and favor with the Middle Kingdom in exchange for shows of deference. That’s because a China-centric regional order, with its weaker neighbors economically and strategically tethered to Beijing’s orbit, is essentially what Beijing is trying to convince the region to accept today.
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