Ex-Malaysia PM: US-led trade group intended to isolate China

·2-min read

TOKYO (AP) — Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized a new U.S.-led economic grouping on Friday, saying it is intended to isolate China, and won't benefit regional economic growth without Beijing.

U.S. President Joe Biden launched the 13-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework during a visit to Japan earlier this week. He said it will help the United States work more closely with Asian countries in areas including supply chains, digital trade, clean energy and anticorruption.

“The U.S. will always want to use groupings like this in order to isolate China,” Mahathir said at an international conference in Tokyo. “Many countries recognize that this is not an economic grouping but it is truly a political grouping.”

The signatories are Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. Together they represent 40% of the world’s GDP.

“This is not good for their own economic development,” Mahathir said of the countries in the grouping.

“China is a big trading partner for Malaysia, we don’t want to see any tension, any conflict with China and we hope that the U.S. will realize that China is there, it’s not going to disappear, and we have to live with China, which is now richer than most countries in the world,” he said at “The Future of Asia,” a conference organized by Nikkei Inc.

Later Friday, current Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is also in Tokyo, met with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida. They welcomed the launch of the economic framework and affirmed their cooperation in areas such as digital transformation, cybersecurity, emerging technology and supply chain resilience, Japan's Foreign Ministry said.

Kishida sought Malaysia’s support in achieving a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, a vision promoted by Japan and the United States as a counter to China’s military and economic rise in the region, the ministry said.

Mahathir, 96, who served as Malaysia's fourth and seven prime ministers, was seen for many years as a de facto spokesperson for less developed countries and frequently criticized the West. He remains an influential figure in Malaysia.

He led an opposition coalition to a historic election victory in 2018 that ousted a corruption-tainted government in the first peaceful transfer of power since Malaysia’s independence in 1957.

Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader at 92 but his rule lasted only 22 months as his government collapsed due to infighting. Mahathir formed a new ethnic Malay party in 2020 to oppose the new leadership.

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