Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Friday downplayed China’s claims to much of the South China Sea, arguing it is more important to avoid clashing with the country led by “ambitious” President Xi Jinping.

“You can claim” the South China Sea, he said in a fireside-style chat at the annual Future of Asia conference in Tokyo. “We don’t have to go to war against you because of your claim.”

He added, “We just want to live in peace among ourselves and with our trading partners.”

Mahathir argued that as long as China’s position does not cause physical harm or otherwise infringe on Malaysia’s own claims, there is no issue. He said China has not inspected ships or banned sailing through the South China Sea. “We have oil production in the South China Sea. So far they haven’t done anything,” he added. “Maybe one day, they will realize that the claim means nothing.”

Mahathir’s position may undercut that of the Malaysian government, which rejects China’s claims to almost all of the sea. But Mahathir stressed that China is the most important trade partner for most of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Even though ASEAN states may disagree with China’s position, they cannot confront the economic giant to their north.

Mahathir urged ASEAN to be pragmatic and to focus on its own economic development, instead of geostrategic issues. “China is a big market. We cannot lose that market,” he said. “If we take sides, we are going to lose either the American market or the Chinese market.”

The veteran statesman, who will turn 99 in July, acknowledged that China has become more assertive under President Xi, but he suggested that a future leader could change Beijing’s tone.

“Xi Jinping seems to be more ambitious and more aggressive,” Mahathir said, adding that “China has gone through many changes because of the changes in the leaders.”

Eventually, when someone succeeds Xi, he said China will inevitably change again, although there is no telling “whether the change will be for the better or for the worse.”

Mahathir, who twice served as prime minister of Malaysia — between 1981 and 2003 and from 2018 to 2020 — lost his parliamentary seat in general elections in November 2022, effectively ending his political career. But he remains an active and vocal figure.

On Friday he repeated his long-held position that ASEAN should stay neutral in the intensifying U.S.-China tensions, including on the issue of Taiwan. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province and says it is prepared to seize it with force if necessary. Mahathir, however, blamed Washington for stoking the friction.

“Unfortunately, America likes to see a confrontation between Taiwan and China. For us, there is no necessity,” he argued. “They claim but they don’t do anything.”

On Thursday, China launched large-scale military drills encircling the island, and on Friday state media reported that Chinese forces conducted mock missile strikes.

Mahathir believes that the U.S. is provoking China by allowing senior officials to visit Taiwan, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose visit in 2022 sparked a similar round of Chinese military exercises.

Diplomatic relations could become more complicated if Donald Trump is elected in the U.S. presidential election in November. For Mahathir, that is all the more reason ASEAN should avoid choosing sides.

“He is going to think about America first, to bring back a greater America,” he said of Trump. “That’s his business. It’s his country. He can do it. But do not harm other people.”

Source : Nikkei

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