TOKYO (Reuters) – Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said yesterday his country will remain friendly with China, which invested billions of dollars during the previous Najib Razak government, but will not be “indebted to China”.
Mahathir, in Tokyo on his first foreign trip since winning a shock election last month, sought to revive the idea of an East Asia economic group which he said would be useful in the face of China’s surging economic power.
“We have to deal with China whether we like it or not. We should deal with it as a group,” Mahathir told an international seminar in Tokyo.
Mahathir said he was not against pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, but he said the TPP should be renegotiated so smaller economies like Malaysia can compete against giants China and the United States.
Mahathir said the ideal would be a broad trade pact such as the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC), which he proposed during his previous term in office.
“Yes, I am still in favour of EAEC,” he said.
Mahathir, 92, returned as premier last month after a stunning election victory over Najib, promising to stamp out corruption and lower living costs.
The new government has said some Chinese companies are possibly linked to the graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that contributed to Najib’s downfall. Mahathir made no reference to 1MDB in Tokyo.
Speaking at a news conference, Mahathir referred to the Chinese investments and projects during the Najib era which he believes will leave Malaysians with billions of dollars in debt.
“That was his particular way of conducting friendship with China,” Mahathir said. “We will be friendly with China, but we do not want to be indebted to China”.
The new government is reviewing a $14 billion local rail line to be built by Chinese companies, and has already withdrawn from a high-speed rail project with neighbour Singapore.
On his own political future, Mahathir said he would stay in power as long as the people of Malaysia wanted him.
“I am willing to serve, if that is the wish of the people, as long as they want me, but of course I don’t know how long I will last,” he said.