KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 10 — Asean leaders could turn to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for lessons on how to balance their relations with US and China amid the two superpowers escalating trade war and rivalry.
South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that Asean nations are under pressure to pick sides and there are insiders in the grouping who hope to adapt Dr Mahathir’s treatment of China as a model on how smaller countries should deal with the Asian superpower.
The world’s oldest prime minister cancelled multiple Chinese-linked infrastructure deals signed by the previous Barisan Nasional administration shortly after winning the 14th general election, escaping visible backlash by insisting it was done purely for economic reasons.
He had also made it clear that among his top foreign policy goals was to ensure that Malaysia returns to a neutral stance.
According to the SCMP, this is the message that Asean leaders hope to hear at this year’s second Asean Summit in Singapore that starts on Monday.
“My understanding is that many in the region are looking forward to Dr Mahathir’s leadership in pushing Asean to be more assertive,” former Malaysian ambassador to China Datuk Abdul Majid Ahmad Khan was quoted as saying.
Universiti Malaya’s Institute of China Studies Ngeow Chow Bing also pointed out that Malaysia PM’s experience and seniority afforded Dr Mahathir a level of deference and respect from other Asean leaders.
“He has handled relationships with all the big powers and gone through the ups and downs in the region. So, there is perhaps a level of deference and respect from other Asean leaders towards him,” Ngeow reportedly said.
Dr Mahathir had made a lot of effort to “give face” to China including visiting the nation’s capital months after the elections.
At the same time, his position that all warships, including those from China, the US or South-east Asian nations, should stay out of the disputed South China Sea waters did not incur any retaliation from China.
However, Ngeow had also pointed out that the age gap between the Malaysian nonagenarian leader and his contemporaries could be an obstacle.
Despite a strong rhetorical commitment to Asean, today’s generation of leaders might have a very different worldview compared to Dr Mahathir, particularly on regional economic integration.
Ngeow was reportedly sceptical of today’s leaders’ appetite for regional economic integration.
Institute of Strategic and International Studies senior analyst Shahriman Lockman also believed that Asean’s problems would be too much for Dr Mahathir to overcome.
“Asean is too much of a lumbering, ineffectual organisation that not even Mahathir can do much for it to change course. As long as key countries like Indonesia are inward-looking and unwilling to play more than a backseat role in Asean, there is little that Mahathir can do,” he reportedly said.