Mahathir's China Policy (1688澳洲新闻网)
01 April 2020

The following is a translation of an article originally published by Chang’an Observation (长安观察). It was republished on the the Australian Chinese-language news website (1688澳洲新闻网).


Hot topic: “I stand with China!” A China hardliner switchers sides?

“If I am forced to pick sides, I will choose a prosperous China, not an unpredictable United States.” Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir recently said in an exclusive media interview in which he talked about China-Malaysia relations, Huawei and a number of other topics. He said that we have been China’s neighbour for 2000 years, but they have never tried to conquer us. The Europeans came to Southeast Asia in 1509 and captured Malaysia in two years.


He also said that Huawei’s security threat has not been identified. “We cannot just follow the example of other countries because Chinese technology is ahead of the West.”


To say these things, is actually the truth. But, at a time when US-China trade frictions could lead to war, it shows some courage to be so blunt. It is even more unusual in the person of Mahathir.


Mahathir, whose full name is Mahathir Mohamad, will be 94 years old this December. This is not his first time in office. From 1981 to 2003, he was elected to this position four times. During that tenure in office, Mahathir led Malaysia’s transformation from an ordinary developing country into a newly industrialised country, with per capita annual income increasing from $1,830 in 1986 to $3,627 in 1996.


First, it was pro-China. He visited China seven times between 1981 and 2003. He visited twice in 2001. At the end of February, he participated in the Boao Forum for Asia and in October of the same year, he participated in the 9th informal meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. He actively strengthened interactions with China and advocated cooperation in infrastructure. He proposed the Pan-Asia Railway plan which would start in Singapore and arrive in Kunming via Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. It would also have branch lines to Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, and Vientiane, the capital of Laos, with a total length of 5,500 kilometres.


Later, he was anti-China. After leaving office, Mahathir’s attitude changed abruptly. He once wrote on a blog that ethnic Chinese can’t take up senior government positions. “If Chinese hold the position of prime minister or chief minister, then they are not only masters of the economy, but also of the political field. What will Malays have?” This statement just inflamed anti-Chinese feelings in Malaysia. The PRC Embassy became angry and responded directly by saying that some people talk about Malaysia-China friendship while in office, but after they step down, they try their best to incite feelings of hatred toward the Chinese… Playing fast and loose; where is their integrity? How do they win the respect of the international community?


Mahathir’s anti-China barrage reached its peak in 2018 with former prime minister Najib Razak. During the campaign, he proposed to redefine China-Malaysia relations, saying that the Malaysian public has not benefited from (China’s) investment and declaring that he would examine it carefully after the election. He suspended three PRC-funded projects at the beginning of this tenure, just as expected.


But he soon became pro-China again. The 93-year-old Mahathir went to China in August 2018. On the last day of his trip, he directly confronted the suspicions of outsiders, saying, “When I came to power, some people worried that I was anti-China. In fact, I am still China-friendly, just as I was before.” He has frequently expressed positive opinions about China since then. In the interview mentioned at the beginning of this article, he also revealed that he will participate in the second Belt and Road summit in April this year. “We must recognise that China is a major power, understand its policies and strategies, and benefit from its policies.”


Is a politician as changeable as a day in June? In fact, pro-China or anti-China, it’s all just a show. The Malaysian Prime Minister’s agenda has never changed. All he is concerned with is how to maximise benefits for Malaysia.


Looking back, is it possible that Mahathir’s anti-China stance during the wilderness years was directed at his political enemies and only incidentally toward China? According to insider analysis, it’s more likely that he was playing campaign politics as a way to force his competitors to step down.


When he had regained power, how is it that the old prime minister who knew everything about international politics, didn’t know how to deal with China? Malaysia has been a huge beneficiary of China’s development both in the last century and in the current one. Malaysia has been China’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia for nearly nine years according to media reports. In its financial system, there is a hidden crisis now. The government and enterprises are burdened with high debts, and the debt-to-GDP ratio far exceeds 100 per cent. China’s Belt and Road Initiative express train could be described as timely assistance in this situation.


In the 22 years that Mahathir was in charge of Malaysia last time, there was a saying that “an unshakeable Mahathir, a mercurial deputy prime minister”. In fact, here you can also apply this sentence pattern – “an unshakeable policy toward China, a mercurial prime minister makes changes.” Friendship with China has political and economic dimensions, both for Najib and Mahathir.


Translation by: Chris Lanzit, NAATI Certified Professional Translator (Chinese-English), NAATI Practitioner ID: CPN0BC84W

Date of Translation: 29 March 2019

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