- The prime minister said Malaysia was ‘caught in the middle’ as proponents of free trade indulged in restrictive trade practices ‘on a grand scale’
- He said the big powers should keep out weapons of war in the South China Sea as any tension would affect Asean’s success
Malaysia's reliance on exports means that it must prioritise peace and stability, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Monday, especially in areas such as the South China Sea where his government has pushed for demilitarisation of the contested waters.
"We have to maintain peace and stability. At this moment in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, passage of ships are still free without any obstructions. But once people start sending warships into this area, there will be tension," he told the 2019 Praxis conference in Kuala Lumpur, organised by Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
"Our appeal to the big powers is to keep out all these weapons of war in this area. We don't want any accidents, as you know accidents may lead to wars," he said.
"Our appeal seems to be heard by the big powers, so far they have not deliberately created any crisis and to that extent Asean has succeeded together."
Malaysia's economic growth relies on trade, Mahathir said, and so the country needs markets and "cannot afford to make enemies".
He also highlighted how Malaysia could be hit with trade sanctions amid rising protectionism highlighted by the US-China trade war, adding that he was disappointed with the proponents of free trade who were now indulging in restrictive trade practices on a "grand scale".
"Unfortunately, we are caught in the middle," he said.
"Economically we are linked to both markets, and physically we are also caught in between for geographical reasons. There are even suggestions that we ourselves would be a target for sanctions."
The United States and China were two of the three biggest export destinations for Malaysia between January and August this year. Singapore was the top destination.
To cushion the impact of the collision between the superpowers, Mahathir said Malaysia was collaborating more with its regional neighbours.
He also complained of being bullied by powerful nations, referring to a campaign by European countries against Malaysia's agricultural mainstay of palm oil. The edible oil contributed 2.8 per cent of Malaysia's gross domestic product last year and 4.5 per cent to total exports.
"Having cleared most of their forests and refusing to reduce their noxious emissions, they now try to impoverish the poor by preventing them from clearing their forest for living space and earning a living," he said.
The European Union passed an act earlier this year to phase out palm oil from renewable fuel by 2030 over deforestation concerns.
There are also concerns that India, one of the biggest buyers of Malaysian palm oil, would restrict imports of the product because of a diplomatic row over comments made by Mahathir on New Delhi's recent actions in the disputed South Asian region of Kashmir.
Last week, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah spelt out in parliament how China's coastguard vessels had a 24-hour presence around the South Luconia Shoals off the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo.
Despite not wanting conflict, Malaysia's military equipment has to be upgraded "so we are able to better manage our waters should there be a conflict between major powers in the South China Sea," Saifuddin said.
His remarks came just a month after the Pakatan Harapan government, which stormed to power last year in a landmark electoral victory, unveiled a new guiding framework for foreign policy that proposed demilitarising the disputed waterway and turning it into a region of peace, friendship and trade.
China objects to most of Malaysia's maritime claims in the South China Sea because they fall within its controversial "nine-dash line", a geographical marker that stretches as far as 2,000km from the Chinese mainland, reaching waters close to Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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