By ALIFAH ZAINUDDIN & DASHVEENJIT KAUR / Pic By MUHD AMIN NAHARUL
Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad intends to be pragmatic in his approach towards China, ahead of his scheduled visit to Beijing for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit next month.
The 93-year-old leader has been a strong critic of Chinese investments in the country, having suspended several Chinese-backed mega projects — including the East Coast Rail Link — after taking over the administration last May.
However, Dr Mahathir acknowledged that China is an economic power that presents opportunities.
“Whether you like it or not, China is a big power and we have to take into consideration their policies and find out how we can benefit from those policies.
“Not all the policies are bad for us. Some can be very good and it is up to us to find what is good for us and to make use of it,” he told reporters at the Parliament complex yesterday.
Dr Mahathir had recently caused a stir after he warned the Philippines against being too indebted to China, saying countries like the Philippines should “regulate or limit influences from China”.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been tapping US$108 billion (RM440.64 billion) in funds from China to help build new highways, railways, airports, piers and bridges in the next 10 years.
Critics often point to Sri Lanka’s experience of failing to repay its loan to China as a form of “debt trap” after the island country was forced to cede control over its two major ports.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has since rejected the view that the BRI is a form of debt-trap tactic, and said there are over 123 countries and 29 organisations that have signed the BRI since it was proposed six years ago.
Wang said the figures reflected a vote of confidence and support for China’s development strategy.
At home, China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 10 consecutive years, with trade growing 8.1% to RM313.8 billion in 2018. This accounted for 16.7% of the country’s total trade.
Despite the new government’s deferment of several Chinese infrastructure projects, Dr Mahathir has refuted claims that he was “anti-China”. He said, however, trade ties with China must offer more benefits to local players.
In a separate development, Dr Mahathir said the newly established Economic Action Council (EAC) will be meeting up soon.
“We are getting the members and we will hold the meeting as soon as possible,” he said.
The government set up the EAC last month in response to economic concerns faced by investors and the masses.
The council, chaired by Dr Mahathir himself, also includes Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Darell Leiking and the PM’s economic advisor Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid.
Other members are former International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and Permodalan Nasional Bhd chairman Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz.
Economist Prof Jomo Kwame Sundaram, who is also a member of the EAC, had recently been reported as saying that members were not informed on the exact issues that would be discussed.