Will Mahathir look past China to the US?
Malaysia's newly elected premier is likely to recalibrate nation's foreign policy back to the middle rather than favor one great power over another
Hours after the Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance stormed to victory in Malaysia’s historic May 9 election, newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivered his first foreign policy message: all deals made with foreign powers by the previous administration would be scrutinized and reviewed.
The message was seen as a warning in particular to China, which has poured massive sums into Malaysia’s economy in recent years under former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s rule. But if history is a guide, Mahathir will strike an adroit balance between the China and the US, with an aim of maximizing benefits from both sides.
At a press conference on Thursday, Mahathir said that his government would have no problem with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), though it might bid to renegotiate some terms of already signed agreements. Mahathir also stressed that he would consider deals “with other countries.”
Before the polls, Mahathir and other Harapan candidates questioned the purpose of some Chinese-funded projects, including the US$13 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) designed to run some 688 kilometers along the country’s mainland peninsula. Mahathir called the project a waste of money on the campaign trail.
“We will review the ECRL project, whether or not it is necessary. If it is not, then we will stop it where it has already been built,” he said in April.
Analysts say any such drastic moves would likely spark a deterioration of relations with Beijing, the country’s top foreign investor in recent years. “If this is true, it will complicate the relationship between Malaysia and China,” said Mohd Izani Mohd Zain, a political analyst.
He notes that the Harapan alliance’s manifesto states its foreign policy goal is to ensure Malaysia’s neutrality and position the nation as a powerful middle power between the US and China.
While there is much talk about a possible new direction for Malaysia’s foreign policy under Mahathir, some political analysts think the potential for a drastic shift is overstated.
“I wouldn’t foresee major cancellations [of trade deals], even if Harapan steps up scrutiny… And I think China’s interests lie fairly clearly in keeping that investment avenue as open as possible,” said Meredith Weiss, a political science professor at America’s University at Albany.
China’s investments in Malaysia are significant and “Malaysia is unlikely suddenly to become an aggressive antagonist,” she added.
Another factor is that Chinese investment has powerful domestic supporters. Last year, Mahathir jousted with certain provincial sultans, including Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of southern Johor state, who said that Mahathir was “playing the politics of fear and race” after the politician criticized the big number of Chinese investments in his state.
“I don’t think Mahathir or his team will be keen to take on the sultans again, and certainly not [Sultan Ibrahim Ismail]; he’s both popular and seen as politically reasonable,” Weiss said.
Foreign policy and anti-Chinese comments made on both sides of the campaign trial were mostly to do with political mudslinging and not indication of how either coalition would pursue foreign policy if in power, analysts say.
Indeed, when Mahathir previously served as prime minister between 1981 and 2003, he was notorious for his anti-Western rhetoric. Along with Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, he was the leading voice in the so-called “Asian values” debate during the 1990s, which argued that “Western” concepts of human rights and democracy were incompatible with Asian culture.
But while openly criticizing so-called “Western values”, he also worked to build stronger economic relations with the US and Europe. Most of Mahathir’s Harapan colleagues, meanwhile, are much more comfortable with Western nations, analysts note.
It remains to be seen who Mahathir will tap as his new foreign minister, a position expected to be filled this week. Weiss says there are rumors that the post will go to the relatively unknnown Shahruddin Salleh, secretary general of Mahathir’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party.
It also waits to be seen how US President Donald Trump will respond to the change in Malaysia’s government. Trump had not yet tweeted about the election at the time of publication, though a White House statement offered congratulations to Mahathir.
Trump had spoken highly of the scandal-plagued Najib, once even calling him “my favorite prime minister.” The comment was followed by Najib’s state visit to Washington last September, where the premier’s traveling entourage stayed at the Trump International Hotel and promised to buy a fleet of American-made airplanes.
While Najib bid to exploit the visit to his political advantage, claiming it showed his premiership had US support, the changeover to Mahathir won’t likely affect bilateral relations, some analysts say.
At least since the early 2000s, Malaysia has been one of America’s most loyal allies in Southeast Asia. For most of this period, it was strongly pro-US and at times vocally anti-China. Malaysia’s close ties to Beijing are a relatively recent development.
Mahathir played a major role in cultivating close ties to the US during his previous tenure as prime minister, despite his frequent anti-Western rhetoric, including wild claims about the role of “Jewish bankers” in the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis that flattened his economy.
During the 1990s under the Bill Clinton administration, Washington was often critical of Mahathir’s rule, complaining of his human rights violations and expressing concern about the firing, then imprisonment, of his deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
But, in 2001, Mahathir’s government reportedly paid US$1.2 million to American lobbyists to burnish his nation’s image among US officials. Shortly afterwards, Mahathir met with then-US president George W Bush.
“From being criticized as being autocratic, anti-Semitic, a jailer of political opponents and anti-free market… all of the sudden, Mahathir’s Malaysia rose from the low ebbs of its international images to sit on the pedestal of the model Muslim nation worthy of an ally,” Karminder Singh Dhillon, a former lecturer at the University of Malaya, wrote in “Malaysian Foreign Policy in the Mahathir Era.”
Mahathir no doubt still has friends among the US Republican Party’s old-guard, though it’s not clear that extends to Trump. In December, he called the US leader an “international bully” and a “villain” after Trump announced that he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Though, it should be noted, Najib was just as critical of Trump’s controversial decision.
While Mahathir has stated that he is not out for political revenge, many analysts believe that his cooperation with the opposition coalition stemmed from his desire to oust Najib for his alleged massive pilfering from a state development fund, the so-called 1MDB scandal. Najib, who has been blocked by Mahathir from leaving Malaysia after his election loss, has consistently denied the charges.
The US Justice Department, despite America’s close ties to Malaysia, has continued full-steam its investigations into Najib’s alleged role in the scam, in which US$3.5 billion from the state fund is thought to have been laundered through US financial institutions. By law, American investigators cannot prosecute a foreign head of state.
Now that Najib is a private citizen, the Justice Department is now free to bring legal action against him. If Mahathir is, despite his claims to the contrary, out for revenge, then handing Najib over for prosecution could help to put him in America’s good books while at the same time delivering on a campaign trail promise to achieve justice in the case.