US profits from confrontations it provokes in Ukraine, South China Sea: Mahathir
Published: Jun 23, 2024 06:33 PM
A China Coast Guard vessel patrols the South China Sea on May, 16, 2024 Photo: VCG

A China Coast Guard vessel patrols the South China Sea on May 16, 2024 Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

The escalation of recent China-Philippines tensions raises concerns among neighboring countries in the South China Sea. How will the Philippines' provocations, instigated and supported by the US, affect the situation in the South China Sea in the remaining part of 2024? How do other ASEAN member countries perceive the Philippines' provocations in the South China Sea? Why do they hope that the situation will be contained? 

In the "ASEAN Perspective on the South China Sea" series, we collect wisdom and insights from former diplomats and scholars from ASEAN member countries. In an exclusive interview with the Global Times (GT), Mahathir bin Mohamad (Mohamad) said that the US seems to like provoking confrontation between nations to the point of causing them to go to war against each other, as happened between Ukraine and Russia. ASEAN does not want to choose sides between China and the US, and we have to accept that we need to maintain good relations with China, he said.

GT: Recently, the South China Sea has become less peaceful, with the US and the Philippines joining forces to escalate tensions. Do you think the Philippines is acting against the interests of ASEAN countries? 

Mohamad: I believe that in ASEAN, we settle things by discussion and negotiation. That is the way ASEAN was born. There will always be conflicts between nations, especially with neighbors, but the conflicts should be resolved through negotiation, arbitration, or maybe a court of law. That is the best way. Sending warships and making strong statements against each other is not the way to solve international conflicts. I hope that the Philippines, China and the US will avoid confrontation and provocation, and be willing to participate in discussions around the table.

GT: What do you think of the US' role in the South China Sea disputes? 

Mohamad: Even though the US is not in the South China Sea, it seems to like provoking confrontation between nations to the point of causing them to go to war against each other, as happened between Ukraine and Russia. The US is a big arms dealer. They can only sell their arms when there is tension and war. 

When the House speaker of the US [Nancy Pelosi] visited Taiwan, that was provocative. Since then, Taiwan has improved its military capacity by buying weapons from America. America has profited from this visit.

GT: ASEAN has advocated for not taking sides between China and the US. How important is it for ASEAN to maintain neutrality for itself and the region? Do you think maintaining neutrality is still the consensus among most ASEAN countries?

Mohamad: ASEAN cherishes trade as an important contribution toward development. If you have confrontation or sanctions, then you cannot trade. We do not want to be against China or the US. We want to be friends. We want to be trading partners with both countries. So we cannot take sides because we cannot lose the Chinese market. Nor can we lose the American market.

There are 10 different countries, and not all are thinking the same. But generally speaking, ASEAN is all about peace and no war. We are not interested in taking sides. But of course, there is some provocation. It's not necessary at all. We should avoid confrontation, between ourselves and between ASEAN and East Asian countries. Also, we do not want to confront the US.

We do not want to have any conflicts between ASEAN and other countries. The Philippines, of course, has fishing rights in the South China Sea. There is a lot of fish there, and both China and the Philippines can go fishing there as long as they do not encroach on each other's national seas.

GT: Malaysia can achieve peaceful coexistence and common development with China despite the South China Sea dispute. If you had the opportunity to share your experience or showcase your policy ideas regarding China to the Philippines or other regional countries, what advice would you give?

Mohamad: My advice is always the same. There will be conflicts between Malaysia and China and between ASEAN and China. But the way to solve conflicts is not to send battleships, but rather to sit down around the table and discuss. And when you discuss problems, you must be prepared to lose some and win some. You cannot win everything. If you are prepared to make concessions, then the region will be very peaceful. When the region is peaceful, trade will grow and we will all prosper.

I don't think the Philippines wants to go and fight China. It's not capable of that. If it does, what happened to Ukraine will happen to the Philippines. I don't think they want that. 

GT: China is often portrayed by the Philippines or some Western media outlets as a "bully" in the South China Sea. In your dealings with China when you were the prime minister of Malaysia, did you ever feel that China poses a security threat to Malaysia or ASEAN?

Mohamad: No. China is a very big and powerful country. We cannot fight China. But we can discuss issues and problems with China. Our relationship with China has always been very good. After we established diplomatic relations 50 years ago, our relations have been growing all the time. Today, China is the biggest market for Malaysian products, and Malaysia is China's market in Southeast Asia.

GT: In a previous interview, you said that America does not find the idea of another power challenging its dominance, specifically China, acceptable. Do you think the US can maintain its hegemony by damaging China-US relations?

Mohamad: Countries sometimes become very powerful, but later on, they lose their position. For example, at one time, Britain was the most powerful country in the world, with colonies around the world, but it's no longer the world power that it once was. The US has taken its place, but it cannot still expect to remain the No.1 world power forever. It has to share power with other countries, for example, with China. As long as it doesn't wage war against other countries, we have to accept that China is a very big, powerful country, both economically and militarily. And we have to accept that we need to maintain good relations with China. 

GT: In last year's interview, we talked about how the Ukraine crisis reshaped the global order. In October last year, the Gaza crisis has arisen. What do you think of this conflict? 

Mohamad: The Gaza conflict started 70 years ago when they took Palestinian land and gave it to the Jews to be made into Israel. You can't go and take other people's land and give it to other countries. That was wrong. Since then, Palestinians have wanted to get their country back. They were not strong. They were not able to fight against Israel because Israel is supported by America and European countries.

The Israelis have been oppressing the Palestinians, even taking Jerusalem as their capital. Currently, Israel is killing a lot of people. Nearly 40,000 Palestinians have been killed. Every day they are killing people, not just soldiers. Unfortunately, America and European countries support Israel, providing Israel with arms, bombs and rockets to kill more Palestinians. 

They talk about human rights, but they don't practice it. When anybody does not agree with them, they are prepared to attack that country. For example, when Iraq and Saddam Hussein did not agree with the US, they attacked Iraq and actually killed Saddam Hussein. This is not the way for good relations to exist between countries. For good relations, you shouldn't use violence or military means for settling disputes.

GT: Do you think the Chinese diplomatic practices and philosophy are better suited to the current international situation?

Mohamad: We were very appreciative of the Chinese way. For Iran and Saudi Arabia who were not very friendly with each other, the Chinese were able to persuade them to have a better diplomatic relationship.

I don't think the Chinese can accept what is happening in Ukraine and the South China Sea. China wants to grow economically. And when you have tensions, you cannot trade, you cannot grow, and you are going to waste your money fighting and killing people. I don't think that is China's objective. 

GT: Does the current situation in the South China Sea worry you? Do you think it will become peaceful in the near future?

Mohamad: My suggestion is that we should have a roundtable discussion every year because that is the ASEAN way of solving problems. We don't fight each other. We sit around the table every year to discuss our differences and find solutions through discussion and negotiation. We should extend that to the three countries in Northeast Asia, namely Japan, South Korea and China, to have a special meeting every year to solve problems that may be affecting us. 

I think if you go to war, everybody will be destroyed. If you use nuclear weapons, it is not only the enemy who will suffer; you will suffer too because of radiation and everything else that comes with it. Then everybody will suffer.