JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Only weeks after his election upset in Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is rolling back his predecessor's legacy and is promising to renegotiate deals made as part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, one of the cornerstones of Beijing's foreign policy in recent years.
Malaysia, one of Southeast Asia's richest countries, has been a focal point of Chinese President Xi Jinping's drive to connect China to its neighbors through ambitious infrastructure projects, and Mahathir's predecessor as prime minister, Najib Razak, was frequently an enthusiastic partner.
Earlier this week, Mahathir told the Financial Times he would speak to China about renegotiating “unequal treaties,” including the $14 billion East Coast Rail Link project. He has also said that by cutting back on mega projects, Malaysia can reduce its national debt by $50 billion, or twice the estimated price tag of President Trump's desired border wall.
The 92-year-old Mahathir, who was previously prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and maintained good relations with Beijing, campaigned accusing his predecessor of running a “kleptocracy” and said the country needs deep budget cuts to reduce debts run up by Najib. In addition to rail projects, Najib oversaw deals involving China to expand Malaysia's ports, roads, bridges and residential developments and to build an industrial park.
The new government's stance is a mild rebuke to Beijing's influence in Malaysia, said Ei Sun Oh, senior adviser for international affairs at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute in Malaysia. But any direct confrontation with China is unlikely, he said.
“Mahathir is not ideologically opposed to China, and the distinction between his approach and Najib's is fine, but there is indeed a distinction,” said Oh, speaking by telephone from Shanghai. “It means being more realistic where Najib had gone overboard. Mahathir is saying that if there are deals to be made with China, they must be studied and evaluated very carefully.”
Speaking of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a Belt and Road project that started last year, Mahathir said, “We are renegotiating the terms,” adding that “the terms are very damaging to our economy,” according to Reuters. Najib, he said, “knew very well that the ECRL, for example, is not something we could afford.”
Mahathir has already entirely scrapped an expensive plan, which did not involve China, to build a high-speed rail link with neighboring Singapore, and he has vowed to fire thousands of civil servants.
Mahathir has pledged to step aside in two years to allow former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who recently emerged from jail after being pardoned for allegedly committing the crime of sodomy.
In addition to being a major infrastructure partner, Malaysia is also the site of the first large-scale international branch of a Chinese university, which is modeled on American and British colleges with campuses abroad and is widely seen as a new part of Beijing's “soft power” offensive worldwide. Students there mostly come from Malaysia's sizable ethnic Chinese minority.
Mahathir's surprise election was the first time since independence from Britain that a sitting Malaysian government lost an election. It also marked the first time that the Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) was elected to take part in a national governing coalition.
But Malaysians of Chinese descent push back hard against any speculation that their background affects their political views or approach to Beijing. After taking over as finance minister, DAP chief Lim Guan Eng has often been asked by media about the significance of his Chinese heritage.
His response has been unequivocal. “I'm Malaysian. I'm not Chinese,” he said.
King Chai Woon in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.