Mahathir, China and neo-colonialism
Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review.
In time, it may be seen as a turning point in China's relations with its neighbors.
At the end of a trip to China in August, during which the red carpet had been laid out for him at every turn, Mahathir Mohamed, Malaysia's newly elected prime minister, stood at a press conference in Beijing alongside Li Keqiang, China's premier.
Foreign leaders are used to minding their words in China, more so than at other diplomatic stops, lest they offend their often prickly hosts on anything from Taiwan to Beijing's multiple territorial disputes.
But Mahathir has never been a leader to bite his tongue, as many of his Western counterparts have found out to their discomfort. Prodded by Li on stage to offer public support for free trade, Mahathir delivered a very different message.
"We should always remember that the level of development of countries are not all the same," Mahathir said. "We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade."
Mahathir was referring specifically to a number of large Chinese-backed infrastructure programs in Malaysia being developed under the banner of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, the billion-dollar plan to anchor Beijing at the heart of new commercial empire.
Although he focused on BRI, Mahathir was also amplifying the largely private complaints of many regional leaders who welcome Chinese investment but increasingly worry it will leave them in Beijing's debt, financially and politically.
Critics, including some political leaders, have warned about the dangers of Chinese debt as far afield as Pakistan, Thailand, Cambodia and the Pacific islands.
As much as it resents his comments, Beijing will not ignore Mahathir's message, and China is already showing signs of trying to recalibrate the project to make it more politically and financially palatable for target countries.
There is a crowning irony in Mahathir's evocation of neo-colonialism, as this was precisely the charge that he used to lay against the West and Western investment when he was at the height of his powers in his first period in office in the 1980s and 1990s.
His remarks are even more remarkable when compared with the starkly different tone struck only two years earlier by his predecessor, Najib Razak, when visiting China in late 2016.
Around that time, Najib, once seen by Washington and other Western nations as a potential partner in Southeast Asia, had been caught up in the U.S. Department of Justice's investigations into the looting of Malaysia's sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB.
Najib wrote an article for the People's Daily, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official mouthpiece, pointedly pushing back against the U.S. and, by implications, the West generally.
Former colonial powers should not lecture nations that they once exploited, he said, a statement which carried with it an implied threat. If the U.S. was going to go after him, Najib would throw Malaysia's lot in with China in response.
Then came the Malaysian elections in May 2018, when voters got to have their own say about the 1MDB scandal. They ejected Najib from office and elected Mahathir to replace him, decades after the regional elder statesman had stepped down.
For the 93-year-old Mahathir, now back in power, to make exactly the same charge against China that both he and Najib made against the West, is incendiary on many levels.
China, after all, is used to playing the anti-colonialism card itself. To have it played back against them must have been galling but Beijing, for the moment, is holding its fire. At a time when its foreign relationships are fraying on many fronts, Beijing needs all the friends it can get.
Mahathir went further than just insulting his hosts. He has also put on ice a number of the BRI investments, including a railway in east Malaysia, which is one of the largest projects being developed under the initiative's banner.
In a bid to reassure countries like Malaysia, Chinese leaders say their investments will be based on "extensive consultation, joint contributions, and shared benefits."
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who emerged in recent weeks from the party's midsummer conclave, held a meeting of the leadership in late August in Beijing in which he started the process of recalibrating the initiative's sale pitch.
"The BRI is an economic cooperation initiative, not a geopolitical or military alliance," Xi said. "It is an open and inclusive process, and not about creating exclusive circles or a China club."
It is hard, at the moment, to know if Xi's recalibration will just be rhetorical, or whether China will genuinely try to redo some projects, or even pull back altogether.
Unlike many Asian leaders, going to China had not been an immediate priority for Mahathir. As someone who had been in power when Japan was the leading Asian economy, and a beacon for the region, Mahathir's first overseas visit after the election was to Tokyo.
Japan is a card that Mahathir has to play against overreliance on China. Japan is China's only genuine rival in the region in terms of investment and infrastructure. It is also a country that Mahathir has long admired and cultivated.
Japan had its own colonial ambitions for Asia in the 1930s, which helped trigger the disastrous Pacific War. But few in Southeast Asia now consider Japan maintains any kind of a colonial mentality. It will anger China even more that this barb is now directed at Beijing instead.