An online article on South China Morning Post claims China is unhappy with criticism from Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. This is a contrast with Chinese view of Dr. Mahathir during his previous stint as Malaysian Prime Minister when he was critical of the west and proved himself to be independent of the western influence. Dr. Mahathir first gained worldwide attention when he criticized IMF during late 1990s Asian Financial Crisis and refused to accept IMF’s conditions. Malaysia, besides Hong Kong, did better than many other Asian countries such as South Korea and Thailand during the financial crisis, and his response to the west during the crisis helped him win admiration from China.
However, times have changed as Dr. Mahathir now directs his criticism at China for its aggressive attitudes in South China Sea as well as ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Dr. Mahathir advises China to take it slow when it comes to Belt and Road Initiative and to show respect to other countries and their interests. The article mentions China has adopted a different approach to increasing its global influence. Unlike the western powers such as the U.S. that have often invaded countries and forcingly imposed political systems on others, China has taken a slow and rather indirect approach to increasing its influence. China gradually earns the respect of the country and uses it to increase its influence. Dr. Mahathir is not alone in his concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative as his opinions have resonated with other East Asian countries as well.
In reading the article, I understand that China viewed Dr. Mahathir favorably as long as he directed his criticism at those countries and institutions that China does not like either. The article does mention that China probably favored Malaysia over Singapore during Dr. Mahathir’s first rule as Malaysian Prime Minister because Singapore was close to the west, unlike Malaysia. I also understand from the article that Malaysia did better than its neighbors during the Asian Financial Crisis because it did not weaken its currency despite demands from IMF. It also rejected other requirements from IMF that might have hurt the economy while protecting the interests of the west. The article also explains that China takes an indirect approach to increasing global influence. It does not use military power or imposes its own systems but rather wins trust first and then slowly increases its influence. The article also implies that Belt and Road Initiative benefits China at the expense of other countries and is not a win-win situation for all countries including Malaysia.
As a Saudi citizen, China’s approach to increasing its global influence seems familiar to me because my country has also used same approach over time. Saudi Arabia does not occupy other countries but rather builds relationships through trade and even financial aid to poor countries. It is clear to me that China has always protected its own interests. It did not favor Dr. Mahathir in the past because it really liked him but because Dr. Mahathir and China had same opponents in the past. The article makes it clear that Dr. Mahathir has not changed at all and is same as he has ever been. Yet China views him differently now because China’s own interests are at stake. I also believe that China should slow down and create terms that are more favorable to other countries. Otherwise it will only hurt China if its neighbors start becoming suspicious of China’s true motives. This will also make it easier for the west to increase its influence in Asia at the expense of China, something China won’t like.