KUALA LUMPUR: China offered to nearly halve the cost of a $20-billion rail project to save the centerpiece of its infrastructure push in Southeast Asia, two sources said on Thursday, but contradictory remarks by Malaysian ministers leave the outcome uncertain.
The conflicting statements made over the past week on the status of the East Coast Railway Link (ECRL) underscore the political and diplomatic challenges facing the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in renegotiating the contract.
“If it was just about the cost, China has offered a big reduction on the cost, as much as around half,” said one of the sources privy to the talks.
Contractor China Communications Construction Co Ltd (CCCC) had offered to cut construction costs of 67 billion ringgit ($16.39 billion) for the 688-km (428-mile) project by as much as half, the sources said.
Expenses on interest and land acquisition help make up the rest of the total cost.
Despite the proposed discount, Mahathir’s government decided to cancel the contract this month, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.
After coming to power in May, Mahathir, a critic of China’s investments in Malaysia, vowed to renegotiate or cancel what he calls “unfair” Chinese projects authorized by his predecessor Najib Razak, and suspended the ECRL in July.
However, on Wednesday Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said Malaysia was pursuing more talks with China.
That news came days after another minister said the Cabinet had decided to terminate the contract and a day after Mahathir sought China’s understanding over the planned cancelation.
Negotiations have continued since the July suspension, with Malaysia indicating that it was looking for cheaper proposals on what would have been China’s biggest Belt and Road venture in Southeast Asia.
The sources also said negotiations had been complicated by the involvement of too many Malaysian officials.
Apart from the Finance Ministry, CCCC and its domestic partner Malaysia Rail Line (MRL) have also had to present their proposals to Mahathir’s long-time adviser, Daim Zainuddin, among other government officials.
“Each has their own agenda and looks at the project differently…it’s a very peculiar situation,” one of the sources said.
Daim led the now-disbanded advisory council formed soon after Mahathir came to power. His office declined to comment.
The Malaysian Finance Ministry directed queries to the Prime Minister’s Office, which did not immediately respond to questions. MRL and CCCC declined to comment.