Southeast Asian nations avoid confronting China over the disputed South China Sea because of the country’s sheer clout, former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad said.
While countries like Malaysia may risk further Chinese encroachments by not taking a tougher stance on their claims, there are few alternatives, Mahathir told Bloomberg Television in an interview in Kuala Lumpur late last month.
“Can ASEAN go to war with China?” Mahathir said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “We are dealing with a very powerful country. We can’t tell them ‘look, don’t do this, don’t do that, or I will bash your head’.”
China is the largest trading partner of the 10-member ASEAN. It has pledged sorely-needed infrastructure investment funds to the region as part of its plan to build a new maritime “Silk Road” trading route from China to the Middle East and onto Europe.
That economic clout gives it sway in its territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia over the South China Sea, a key maritime artery for trade and energy shipments.
China’s trading influence is increasingly matched by an expanded naval presence in the region, with missiles, fighter jets and radar operating from some reefs and islands it controls.
“It’s going to be the most powerful country in this world, more powerful than the US,” Mahathir said of China.
During his administration from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir advocated a pragmatic relationship with China and promoted what he called “Asian values”.
China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and was its fourth-biggest foreign investor in 2015.
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