During his long tenure as prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad brought Malaysia to the centrestage in international relations.
Malaysia became a well-respected leader of the Third World. It was strong enough to take an independent stance in foreign policy, particularly when the US was the sole superpower leading the then-unipolar world.
Mahathir’s personality and his personal beliefs shaped the character of the country’s foreign policy with strong commitments to Asean, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the G77, as well as with taking a critical stance towards the US and the West.
Furthermore, he was admired for his Look East Policy and visionary initiatives with the East Asian community that was strongly opposed by the US.
But the world today has changed greatly. The NAM and G77 are both weak. So too is the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Rising in the East
The world is no longer unipolar, but is taking a multi-hub and multi-partnership structure in international relations. The rise of China and a resurgent Russia pose increasing challenges to the US – a superpower in relative decline, but still the most powerful nation with its alliance system and bases spread all over the globe.
Both China’s rise and the US trying to retain its global power and influence will dominate international relations for the foreseeable future, and this will have a particularly strong impact on Asean and East Asia.
China today, with its increasing wealth and power, is no longer the same nation that Mahathir encountered when he was prime minister.
Under President Xi Jinping, the country has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s discreet foreign policy and adopted one that openly strives to show itself as a superpower.
This is evident in its aggressive stance on the South China Sea issue, turning mostly rock formations into military fortresses, and promoting the One Belt One Road Initiative as its grand economic and connectivity strategy. Underlying this is a geopolitical strategy to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence.
Donald Trump as president is the single most damaging factor to US foreign policy. His America First policy, withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, criticism of free trade and globalisation, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and other actions have contributed to the weakening of US leadership and its role in the world.
Against this backdrop, an assertive China, with its OBOR/BRI and chequebook diplomacy, is divvying up Asean.
Under these circumstances, if Pakatan Harapan were to win the 14th general election, Mahathir as prime minister would have to make a lot of adjustments to Malaysia’s foreign policy.
Sovereignty on sale?
Mahathir has expressed his criticisms of the investments and projects in Malaysia by Chinese companies, many of which are state-owned. He has been especially vocal on Forest City in Johor.
Many share the concerns expressed by Mahathir. While Malaysians may generally welcome investments and projects with financing packages from China, people want to see more transparency, accountability and good governance.
They do not want Malaysia to be so heavily indebted to China, and want to see a more balanced overall policy towards the superpower so as to protect Malaysia’s core national interests, sovereignty and independence.
It will be interesting to see how Mahathir will tackle the very important yet sensitive relations with China should he become prime minister. It has never been in the interest of a nation to be too close and dependent on a single power.
In May 1985, Mahathir made a historic visit to China to meet with Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders, and what he said in Beijing at an official dinner hosted by the Chinese government is still relevant today
“…we welcome the many assurances of your leaders that China will never seek hegemony and will never do anything to harm us. We also note your assurances that China’s developing military capacity is purely for its own defence. We appreciate the enormous burden of self-restraint and responsibility that this entails.
“I ask that you understand us, if despite these assurances some concerns linger on, for we are extremely jealous of our sovereignty and trust does not come easily to us in view of our past experiences.
“Our experiences with China have not been free of problems and it would take time and mutual effort for us to put to rest some of the things leftover from history.”
A whole new world
The nature of an emerging multipolar structure in international relations today, as noted above, is vastly different from the world Mahathir knew during his tenure.
Besides the changing roles of the US, China and Russia, the European Union has had to carve its own leadership role, in particular through a fresh leader in France, the consequences of Brexit, the Russian-China joint leadership of the potentially powerful Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the G20 and BRICS – along with a weak Third World in general.
Mahathir will have to adjust to all these changes, though relations with China will be the most critical, as it directly affects Malaysia’s core national interests and also that of Asean.
Mahathir will have to find a balanced policy that would foster good relations with China, while protecting Malaysia’s core interests, and for Asean to remain a central figure in international relations in the region to promote peace, stability and progress.
It is not in the long-term interest of China to weaken Asean, and hopefully Mahathir can provide the leadership required for the regional community to strengthen itself through more meaningful cooperation.
This will be vital to deal with a rising China and maintain good and healthy relations with all of Asean’s dialogue partners.
New horizons to pursue
As a visionary who initiated the idea of an East Asian Community, Mahathir will have the chance to build on his vision by strengthening the Asean + 3 (China, Japan and South Korea), which is in effect the community which he envisaged.
Relations with the US will always be important and those relations can always be strengthened despite Trump. It will be ill-advised to try to be to be close to Trump as a way of building Malaysia-US relations.
With the EU, I hope Mahathir will try to build a better relationship with the bloc, so that it can play a more active and constructive role in Malaysia and Asean – going beyond just trade and economic relations to providing geopolitical support for the region so that it does not fall under the influence of one single power.
In the Middle East, which is in turmoil today, Mahathir has a chance to bring about change in Malaysia’s policy in the region.
If Malaysia is not aligned to any regional power, but instead remains neutral, it will be able to play the role of peacemaker alongside more moderate Islamic nations like Indonesia, Turkey and Tunisia.
Malaysia’s foreign policy towards the region should be concentrated on building peace, and be oriented towards preventive diplomacy and economic development.
Mahathir may continue to have strong attachments to South-South cooperation, NAM and the G77, but the world has changed so greatly that it would be wise for Pakatan Harapan to make an objective assessment of the realities of international relations today and come up with fresh approaches.