If forced to take sides in the high stakes geopolitical rivalry and trade war between the United States and China, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad would prefer the economic largesse of Beijing.
He pointed to the current state of the unpredictability of the American superpower as a negative factor when asked about the impact of Sino-American tensions on other, smaller nations in the region.
In a wide-ranging and exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post focused on his Southeast Asian nation’s foreign policy, Mahathir said Malaysia’s strong ties with China were not “static” over time or issues.
Rather, the overarching goal must be to find ways of working with the rising power rather than to let fears about its ascent cloud the government’s judgement. In particular, he said Malaysia would not be swayed by Western scaremongering that the Chinese telecom firm Huawei was involved in spying.
“When China was poor, we were frightened of China. When China is rich, we are also frightened of China,” he said. “I think we have to find some way to deal with China.”
In the past, China exported communism to the region, including Malaysia, and was now spreading its influence through economic might.
But even though Malaysia learned to navigate the relationship, Mahathir offered a perspective from history: “We always say, we have had China as a neighbour for 2,000 years, we were never conquered by them. But the Europeans came in 1509, in two years, they conquered Malaysia.”
And, while Western suspicions of Beijing have deepened over issues from cyber espionage to interference in domestic politics, Mahathir said his 10-month-old government would make its own, independent decisions on how to deal with its largest trading partner rather than take cues from abroad.
“accept that China is close to us”
“Well, it depends on how they behave. Currently, the US is very unpredictable as to the things they do,” Mahathir said in Manila before talks with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. For now, Malaysia had to “accept that China is close to us”, he said.
“And it is a huge market. We want to benefit from China’s growing wealth”
This was a purely economic consideration, Mahathir said. “So at this moment, economically, we would prefer China. Politically, of course, we are not attracted towards a system of government that is very authoritarian.”
His nuanced comments to the Post on China will further entrench the view of many analysts that he has softened his publicly hawkish views about Asia’s biggest economy since beginning his second stint as Prime Minister, he also held the post from 1981 to 2003.
Before the election, last May, in which he toppled one-time protégé Najib Razak, Mahathir’s views on China had at times verged on being unvarnished at one point even provoking sharp rejoinders from the Chinese Embassy in his Country.
Prime Minister Mahathir’s first with foreign media this year, the Prime Minister offered his views on a range of concerns raised by the international community and particularly the West about Beijing in recent months.
Over the past year, Western countries have voiced fears that China is using the homegrown telecoms equipment supplier Huawei to spy on other countries, and that Beijing’s cheap loans to developing countries as part of President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” are a type of “debt-trap diplomacy” aimed at creating a network of pliant, debtor states.
On Huawei, Mahathir said Malaysia was “watching closely” discussions on whether the firm’s involvement in next-generation, high-speed “5G” internet networks would pose a threat to national security.
The US and Australia are among the Western countries that have restricted Huawei’s involvement in developing such networks, citing concerns that the company would insert “back doors” in the technology that would be accessible to the Chinese state.
Huawei on Thursday said it was suing the US government, claiming that Washington’s ban on government agencies, employees and contractors from using its products was “unconstitutional”. Mahathir said: “At the moment we have not found them a threat to our security. Not yet, maybe later.”
“But we cannot just follow actions taken by other countries because Chinese technology seems to be ahead of Western technology,” he said.
Mahathir also addressed the debt-trap accusation. Western countries point to the example of Sri Lanka, which ceded control of its Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease after falling behind on its debt obligations, as highlighting their concerns. But Mahathir said sovereign governments were free to decide whether to take on foreign loans.
“The Chinese by nature are very good business people” Prime Minister Mahathir said.
“They see opportunities and with their capital, they want to penetrate areas where before they had no representation or little representation.”
But “the countries concerned must be able to distinguish what is allowable or needed by their country and what is not. If countries prefer to borrow huge sums of money, well, that is their decision.”
“You make that decision, you know capital flowing into the country exerts some influence over the country. So it is up to the countries concerned to make sure that the money flowing into their country is not borrowed money, is not money for infrastructure, but may be limited to money for investment in production processes.”
Still, pressed on whether he bought the “debt threat” theory, the Prime minister said: “Well, yes maybe it is that way because that is one way of buying influence.”
He offered the caveat that while China had a strong influence “on our economy and maybe even our politics”, the Asian power had not moved to colonise like Europeans of yesteryear who “came to the East and very simply conquered the East”.
“It is all up to us,” Mahathir said.
Since coming to power, Mahathir’s government has been swift to pare down what it sees as overpriced and unnecessary China-backed infrastructure projects that Malaysia signed up to under the scandal-tainted former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Among these projects is the 55 billion ringgit (US$13 billion) East Coast Rail Link project that, according to Mahathir, remains under negotiation.
While questions over the future of the rail project to have been built by China Communications Construction Company linger, Mahathir said he would be all ears when he visits Beijing in April for a second Belt and Road Initiative summit to be hosted by Xi.
While no official date for the summit featuring world leaders involved in the trillion-dollar initiative has been set, diplomatic sources told the Post it would be from April 25 to 27.
Prime Minister Mahathir’s visit will be his second to China since his shock election victory over Najib last May.
“I am going there because I want to listen to what they are saying about the belt and road and at the same time given a chance I would like to explain Malaysia’s attitude towards this policy of China,” Mahathir said.
He added: “Whatever may be our attitude towards China, we have to admit that China is a big power. It is a regional power and we need to deal with them. We need to understand their policies and strategies and we have to make adjustments so that we can gain some benefit from China’s policies.”
In usual fashion, the sprightly 93-year-old took veiled potshots at the West during the 40-minute interview. He slammed President Donald Trump’s trade war against Beijing as a strategy that “doesn’t have any positive, good results”.
Asked about the mounting unease towards Beijing cited repeatedly by the US and its allies, Mahathir quipped that the Western nations during their stints as former colonial rulers did not “talk about domination or about how they used military might against small countries even to the point of conquering them”.
“Now we see China having economic strength, and it is going to make use of economic strength to achieve what is to China the best objective that they have to grow richer and richer, and this is the ambition of all countries.
“With their wealth they are going to be in the same position that the Western countries were in the past.”
But, again drawing from history, he offered this assessment: “China’s attitude, of course, is to gain as much influence as possible. But so far China doesn’t seem to want to build an empire. So we will remain free people.”
Still, Mahathir said his visit to the Philippines the fifth Southeast Asian country he has visited since returning to power also had a China angle to it, suggesting that his talks with Duterte, who is widely viewed as dovish towards the Asian superpower, would delve into how the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should collectively deal with Beijing.
“Southeast Asian countries must have a common stand. We, as far as possible, should not deal with China as one single country and only think about what we can gain when the other countries are losing,” he said.