Understanding Mahathir’s China Policy

It was not long ago when Mahathir, the now-93 year old Malaysian politician, announced that he would run in Malaysia’s general election 2018 against his former mentee, Najib Razak.

Mahathir was Malaysia’s Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003. He was known for his strong support for the idea of “Asian values”, together with Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Soeharto of Indonesia. Some even added Philippine’s Marcos to the list, although the timeline does not match that well.

One of his known assertion is that democracy is a luxury for developing countries. Development is imperative and key to democracy, not the other way around.

Mahathir won the 2018 general election, regarded by many as a “shock win”. He once again becomes Malaysia’s Prime Minister at the age of 92, the oldest democratically elected leader in world’s modern history.

He was a member of UMNO several times, namely in 1946–1969, 1972–2008, and 2009–2016. He was then affiliated with Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) since 2016, while his former political mentee Najib Razak led the Barisan Nasional (National Front).

The Campaign

Mahathir was very sharp when it comes to Najib’s deals with China, such as the East Coast Rail Line (ECRL). Other than that, Mahathir’s bloc also harshly criticized Najib for the “reckless” deal involving some pipelines and other major infrastructure in the country.

Mahathir also brought up the corruption scandal, 1MDB, masterminded by Najib, during the campaign for the general election.

Mahathir promised the public that if he were elected, his government will review all deals struck with China.

Other than that, he promised his voters that he will ask Malaysia’s king to pardon Anwar Ibrahim, another Malaysian politician that was jailed at the time of the campaign.

Anwar Ibrahim was jailed for an orchestrated charge against him by his political opponents, who was no one other than Mahathir himself, and another conviction subsequently by Najib, each during their respective premierships.

Mahathir needed the support of Anwar Ibrahim’s supporters during the 2018 general election to beat Najib. Mahathir’s win comes under the deal that after two years, Mahathir will hand over the Prime Ministership to Anwar.

It is interesting to see that two of the major promises made by Mahathir were about Najib’s deals with China and the release of and subsequent succession by Anwar Ibrahim (which is yet to happen).

After Mahathir is Elected

Mahathir is very careful when it comes to his approach to China. Understanding that China is now a much bigger country than it was when he was in office for his first term as the Prime Minister, Mahathir does not want to piss China off.

When criticizing the ECRL, for example, he does not want to blame China. Instead, he turned to blame Najib for having struck the deal with China, knowing that Malaysia does not have the financial capacity to pay the project.

Although Mahathir’s government finally reviewed the projects, the ECRL, for example, was not eventually terminated.

Mahathir agreed to continue ECRL, although he repeatedly said previously that ECRL does not really serve the interest of the people of Malaysia, and Malaysia does not need it yet.

Mahathir was even visiting China shortly after he was sworn as the Prime Minister — most likely to negotiate the terms of the projects.

Mahathir’s government argues that the penalty paid due to the cancellation is just too big to be paid, and that the country will be better off if the project is continued, with some concessions from China, including several cuts in the price tags here and there.

It is interesting given the fact that Mahathir decided to terminate the rail network connecting Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, while keeping the projects with the Chinese.

On Huawei

Mahathir also turned its back against the United States, to side with China in regards to the trade dispute between world’s two biggest economies.

Despite US calls on countries to not use Huawei’s products shortly after the US banned Huawei’s products from its soil, Mahathir said that if Huawei wants to spy on his country, Huawei can spy as much as it wants, because Malaysia does not have anything to hide.

This surely pisses off Washington. And this remark surely sounds like music in Beijing’s ears.

So far Malaysia has been so friendly towards China. There is no sign in the near future that the two countries will head to a confrontational direction.

This is interesting given the fact that Mahathir was sharply criticizing Najib for his closeness to China.

One thing for sure, we now understand that Mahathir’s China policy evolves following how he can maximize his own benefits by giving suitable words for suitable situations.

As Palmerston perfectly puts it, there are no eternal allies and perpetual enemies; what eternal and perpetual are interests.

International Relations enthusiast