Mahathir Positions Malaysia as a Check on China’s Ambitions in Southeast Asia

Mahathir Positions Malaysia as a Check on China’s Ambitions in Southeast Asia
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks to reporters at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Aug. 20, 2018 (Pool photo by How Hwee Young of European Pressphoto Agency via AP Images).

The shock election of 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad for a second stint as Malaysia’s prime minister last May generated a sense of unease in the corridors of power in Beijing. In tough rhetoric on the campaign trail, Mahathir had accused his predecessor, Najib Razak, of ceding Malaysia’s sovereignty to China by accepting billions of dollars in Chinese loans to finance large-scale infrastructure projects. Mahathir warned that Malaysia’s “freedom would be affected if we are going to owe such a large sum to any one country,” and he voiced fears that Najib appeared willing to “give up” the nation’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Since taking office, Mahathir has made Beijing more nervous. In August, he suspended two major Chinese-financed infrastructure projects that are central to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative: the $20 billion railway running down the Malay peninsula, dubbed the East Coast Rail Link, and a $2.3 billion gas pipeline set to run through northern Borneo. Mahathir has also spoken out forcefully over Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, saying warships should not be stationed in contested waterways and warning of the potential for conflict if militarization continues.

With the United States largely pulling back from Southeast Asia under President Donald Trump, who immediately withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has favored protectionist measures over U.S. engagement abroad, does Mahathir represent the last bulwark against China’s grand regional ambitions?

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review