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The Future of Asia 2021

'Old' Quad strategy risks provoking China: Malaysia's Mahathir

Veteran leader also urges Beijing to tread carefully regarding Taiwan

Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks to Nikkei Asia during an online interview on May 20.

KUALA LUMPUR -- The countries in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, should be careful not to enrage China lest they trigger a heavy global economic backlash, Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned in an exclusive interview on Thursday.

He said the Quad members -- the U.S., Japan, Australia and India -- would be better off engaging with Beijing individually rather than joining hands to attempt to control China's rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region and the South China Sea.

The Quad "is an old strategy of encirclement where you try to encircle the enemy, but when you do that, the enemy will retaliate," he said in conjunction with Nikkei's Future of Asia conference, which Mahathir will address with a keynote speech on Friday.

"Please remember, Japan went to the Second World War because the Americans denied Japan access to oil," he said. "It's the same for China."

Mahathir, who will turn 96 years old in July, was in college when World War II ended in 1945.

The veteran leader said the Quad should ensure peaceful negotiations with China toward stability and mutual economic benefits.

Mahathir also expressed hope that U.S. President Joe Biden would be able to repair the country's relationship with China, after his predecessor Donald Trump's aggressive approach toward the Xi Jinping administration soured diplomatic ties.

"I think over time Biden might be able to reduce the tension and have a dialogue with China," he said. "It cannot become worse than Trump because Biden has more experience in international affairs than Trump as he served as vice president with (Barack) Obama."

The Quad is an informal strategic dialogue initiated in 2007 by Japan to enhance diplomatic and military ties, then revived in 2017 after a hiatus. This renaissance was widely seen as a response to China's rising influence and territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific region, alongside its active investment in poor countries. The Chinese government has openly opposed the dialogue from the start.

After taking over as president in January, Biden hosted the first Quad leaders meeting online in March, asserting the need for cooperation among the four countries in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Mahathir did not only direct his warnings at the Quad, however. He also said China should be careful with its approach to Taiwan, as it could force the U.S. to respond strongly.

On the prospect of Beijing trying to take Taiwan by force, "I think if China does that, then the U.S. will take violent action and this will lead to war," he said. "Wars cannot be confined with just two countries, but everybody will be dragged in as everyone would try to find supporters, thus creating a world war and the whole world would suffer."

Mahathir said ensuring peace in the South China Sea would also be crucial for geopolitical stability.

"Chinese claim that the South China Sea belongs to them, but ships are passing through without being hampered or examined by them," he said. "If China suddenly decides to stop ships passing through, there will be a crisis."

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