Note: The Article is partly based on the author’s exclusive interview with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad on March 8.
“The world has always been afraid of China because of [its]…enormous size,” Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told me earlier this month. Since his astonishing return to politics last year, the Malaysian leader has inspired a chorus of Sino-skepticism across Asia.
At the heart of his grievance is growing fear of the‘debt trap’ under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is transforming the infrastructure landscape across the Eurasian landscape.
A more careful assessment of Mahathir’s foreign policy, however, reveals a more nuanced position, whereby smaller countries like Malaysia are seeking adjustments, rather than rejection, of large-scale investments from China.
The Malaysian Maverick
In Twelfth Night (1602), William Shakespeare wrote, “some [men] are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.” In many ways, Mahathir fits all three categories of greatness.
Born into a humble and racially mixed family, he rapidly rose through the political ranks with sheer determination and undaunted ambition. Studying medicine on a scholarship, he told me, was his ticket to political success, since one needs a good degree in order, “to be taken seriously.” He would have rather pursued law if he were granted the scholarship.
Through ruthless cunning and unshakable conviction, Mahathir eventually became Malaysia’s paramount leader throughout the closing decades of the 20th century. A consummate statesman, however, he never truly left the political scene, overseeing the installment of his protégés (Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak) as his successors.
At the age of 92, however, he decided to fully return to politics amid growing backlash against former Prime Minsiter Najib Razak’s unrestrained corruption and growing dependence on Chinese investments.
Riding public grievance, power was now “thrust upon” Mahathir, who, true to his campaign promise, initiated the swift arrest of the former prime minister on corruption charges and suspended close to $20 billion of big-ticket Chinese investments.
In particular, the new Mahathir government was desperate to trim down the country's debt, which ballooned to $251 billion in recent years.
“If you borrow huge sums of money you [will eventually] come under the influence and direction of the lender,” Mahathir told me, warning about dangers of “subservience” if smaller nations borrow beyond their “capacity to repay” Chinese loans.
He warned smaller nations against “endangering your own freedom" due to “owing too much money to China.”
Over the past few months, he has gone so far as warning against “new colonialism” and seeking closer dialogue and cooperation with other Asian countries, including Pakistan, which have heavily relied on Chinese investments.
“When we talk about new colonialism,” Mahathir told me, “what the Chinese are doing is not exactly that but it has the effect of diminishing the freedom of action of other countries that are owing too much money to China.”
Yet, often missed are the nuances of Mahathir’s position on China. Far from categorically rejecting Chinese investments, he made it clear that “we don’t mind them setting up plants to produce goods.”
What he rejects, however, are situations where Chinese companies proceed with “developing whole towns and cities and bringing their people to live there”, since this “will have bad political effect on the [host] country.”
The Malaysian leader also pushed back against anti-China hysteria. “When China was poor people were worried about China. Now that [they] have become rich they are [still] worried for other reasons.”
For Mahathir, China can’t be blamed for its sheer size and power, underscoring the imperative for peaceful means of dealing with China “rather than just open confrontation.”
He emphasized the need for dialogue, since “[i]t is important for China to [also] take notice of other [countries’] views and perceptions.” In short, he seems fairly optimistic that Beijing will make necessary adjustments when faced with pushback by BRI recipient countries.
Echoes from the Past
The Malaysian leader’s tough stance against China initially took many by surprise, given his history of anti-Western tirades and broadly Beijing-friendly rhetoric in closing decades of the 20th century.
More recently, however, Mahathir has returned to his old ways, taking an even more strident take against the Donald Trump administration. For the Malaysian leader, we are now witnessing the intimations of a new Cold War, as Washington engages in an escalating trade dispute with Beijing, which has raised alarm bells among trade-dependent nations such as Malaysia.
“[President] Trump is unusually aggressive and inconsistent, we don’t really know what he is going to do next,” Mahathir lamented, underscoring the dangerous uncertainty that clouds American foreign policy in recent years. “He may change his mind sometimes three times a day.”
From its unilateral withdrawal from the United Nations-approved Iranian nuclear deal to its equally controversial decision to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem, the Trump administration has exacerbated the vortex of chaos in the Middle East, which will only undermine its ability to exercise constructive leadership in East Asia.
As one of the most prominent Muslim leaders in the world, Mahathir has been openly critical of American and Israeli policies in the region, consistently expressing support for the Palestinian cause in global fora. He constantly expressed frustration over what he views as Washington’s tendency to see, especially under Republican administrations, every geopolitical challenge in the Islamic world as a nail to the hammer of its military might.
Moreover, Mahathir has lamented America’s diminishing commitment to multilateralism and the liberal international order in favor of protectionist nationalism.
But this is what makes Mahathir a truly independent-minded leader, with his inexplicable audacity to stand up to both the West and East in order to protect the interest of smaller nations such as Malaysia. This is why he is arguably the last titan of Asia, an unmatched voice for smaller nations’ autonomy beyond superpower rivalries, the likes of whom we may not see for a very long time.