Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad struck a conciliatory tone during his visit to Beijing Monday, a stark contrast to his earlier sharp language on China.
In the past year, Mahathir has spoken harshly about Chinese investment in his country, alleging that his predecessor hurt Malaysia’s sovereignty by signing multibillion-dollar deals with China.
But on Monday, the Malaysian leader said his nation could “learn a lot” from Beijing. “I believe in cooperation with China because China has got a lot that will be beneficial to us,” Mahathir told reporters after holding talks in Beijing with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
For his part, Li said both sides were willing to further expand trade between China and Malaysia. “China is willing to further increase imports of Malaysian goods to satisfy the needs of the Chinese market,” the Chinese premier said.
The 93-year-old Malaysian leader started his five-day visit on Friday. He toured a Chinese car plant and e-commerce giant Alibaba, and rode China’s fastest high-speed train from the tech hub of Hangzhou to Shanghai, before arriving at the Chinese capital.
Although Mahathir has long spoken about renegotiating the terms of Beijing-funded large-scale infrastructure projects in his country, documents signed between the two governments Monday only touched on more modest items, such as cross-border accounting cooperation, and durian and palm oil trade.
Mahathir later met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, during which he said Malaysia welcomes Chinese investments to benefit both nations.
When he joined the opposition to topple then-Prime Minister Najib Razak last year, Mahathir strongly criticized the Najib government’s business deals with China, especially a massive loan from China to build a rail link.
’An old friend of the Chinese people’
He warned such agreements could threaten Malaysia’s independence – including its claim in the South China Sea, where an increasingly aggressive Beijing is locked in a bitter territorial dispute with its smaller neighbors.
“We already have big debt, now we are going to owe such a large sum from a single source,” Mahathir was quoted as saying last November. “It appears as if we are changing our approach to the South China Sea, that we are willing to give up our claims.”
In July, citing their high costs, Mahathir suspended two China-backed projects worth over $22 billion – the East Coast Rail Link as well as gas pipelines – that were approved by Najib, who had pulled Kuala Lumpur close to Beijing.
But speaking on Sunday at an elite business forum in Beijing, Mahathir blamed Malaysia’s huge debt to China on Najib, who is now awaiting trial for alleged corruption.
“It is not about the Chinese, it is about the Malaysian government,” he said. “We are not against Chinese companies, but we are against borrowing money from outside and having projects which are not necessary and which are very costly.”
China has been careful in addressing Mahathir’s statements since he took office in May, describing the elder statesman as “an old friend of the Chinese people” and praising his “support and participation” in the Belt and Road Initiative, a global trade and investment program championed by Xi.
Mahathir – who had earlier led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 – appears to have softened his stance on China as well, after scoring a stunning electoral victory and returning to power.
In an interview with CNN last month, Mahathir, who still voiced doubts over China’s “spreading influence through money,” said that Malaysia has to accept the reality of a dominant China in the region and cannot go to war with Beijing over the South China Sea.
“They are more powerful, and we cannot fight against them,” he said. “How do we benefit from their wealth and their power? That’s what we are looking at now.”