Beijing is more than 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) north of the sandy beaches, oil palm plantations and tropical forests that distinguish peninsula Malaysia’s less prosperous South China Sea east coast from the rollicking economic growth on its western shore along the Strait of Malacca.
In November 2016, then-Prime Minister Najib Razak traveled to China’s capital to drum up investment in an audacious infrastructure development plan to balance the economic disparity between his country’s east and west coasts. He wanted China to finance and build a US$14 billion trans-peninsular rail line, construct mammoth manufacturing plants, expand the port in the city of Kuantan, and encourage real-estate investment.
Conservation groups eyed the plan warily. They worried that one of the densest concentrations of new mega infrastructure projects in the world would produce runaway deforestation, erosion and pollution.