Where Duterte, Mahathir stand on pressing ASEAN issues

Pia Ranada

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Where Duterte, Mahathir stand on pressing ASEAN issues
(UPDATED) One embraces China investments with open arms, the other shows more caution. One sees US President Donald Trump as a 'friend,' the other calls him an 'international bully.'

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is set to visit the Philippines starting Wednesday, March 6 until Thursday, March 7

This will be Mahathir’s first visit to the Philippines since he returned as Malaysia’s prime minister in 2018. In his previous term as prime minister, Mahathir had undertaken bilateral official visits in 1987 and 1994.

Mahathir returned to power only in May 2018 after leading the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan to victory against the coalition of former prime minister Najib Razak who was besieged by corruption allegations and is now barred from leaving the country.

At 93, Mahathir is the world’s oldest prime minister. Before his win, Mahathir already held the title of longest serving Malaysian leader after ruling the country for two decades as its 4th prime minister. The nonagenarian is credited for transforming Malaysia into one of Asia’s tiger economies during his two-decade rule, even as he was criticized for imprisoning political opponents without trial and curtailing powers of the judiciary.

Mahathir’s return to power heralds changes not just in Malaysia but for the entire Asian region as well. More specifically, reverberations will be felt in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regional bloc of which Malaysia and the Philippines are a part.

Here is a comparison of where Mahathir and Duterte stand on critical ASEAN issues:

Economic deals with China 

It’s on this issue where the two leaders differ the most. While the Duterte administration has embraced economic deals, including loans, with Beijing, Mahathir is showing more caution. He has promised to renegotiate billions of dollars worth of agreements with China that were signed in the Najib era. One of these deals is the US$13-billion East Coast Rail Link, a rail line to be built by Chinese state companies meant to connect the capital Kuala Lumpur to less developed regions in the east. Mahathir thinks these will leave Malaysians buried in debt.

“We will be friendly with China, but we do not want to be indebted to China.” he said in Tokyo in early June.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Mahathir said he is open to Chinese investments, but specified which deals would be acceptable. 

“When it involves giving contracts to China, borrowing huge sums of money from China, and the contract goes to China, and China contractors prefer to use their own workers from China, use everything imported from China, even the payment is not made here, it’s made in China. So, we gain nothing at all. That kind of contract is not something that I welcome,” he had said. 

Duterte, in contrast, has sung praises for China and its promise of both “generous” loans and grants to the Philippines. He offered to China the chance for one of its firms to be the 3rd major telecommunications company in the Philippines, with the goal of ending the duopoly in the vital industry.

His economic managers have said the government will be prudent in negotiating and accepting loan agreement terms with Beijing.

South China Sea dispute

Mahathir’s interest in China as an important market for his country has not stopped him from being vocal against the Asian giant’s claims to Malaysian-held islands in the South China Sea.  

He has been crystal clear that Malaysia will not give up its islands. 

“We want to retain, of course, about 4 or 5 islands that we have occupied. The rest – whoever thinks it is theirs, they can occupy. It is something if China claims the South China Sea is theirs, but those islands have always been regarded as ours for a long time. So we want to retain them,” he told South China Morning Post. 

He has also spoken out against the presence of both Chinese and American Navy boats in the South China Sea, saying these only escalate tensions in the area. 

Duterte has asked China not to touch any of the islands or features already held by the Philippines. But holes were punched into his apparent tough stance when he backed out from his plan to visit Pag-asa Island, the largest of the Philippine-controlled islands, because Beijing asked him not to. (READ: PH plans for Pag-asa to test Duterte’s friendship with China)

The Philippine leader, unlike Mahathir, wields an international arbitral ruling that invalidates China’s claim to the West Philippine Sea but has decided to shelve it for later. His administration has chosen to file protests against China’s actions silently, in hopes of protecting their friendly ties.

Donald Trump 

The Duterte-Trump bromance is no state secret, with President Duterte trumpeting the American leader’s support for his controversial campaign against illegal drugs. The two evidently hit it off during the ASEAN Summit held in Manila in November 2017, when Duterte even granted Trump’s song number request during the welcome dinner. The two leaders have met twice and have had at least two phone conversations. 

In contrast, Mahathir is not so eager to speak with Trump and has made less than flattering remarks about him.

“I have no plans to go and see him,” Mahathir, as quoted by the New York Times, said of Trump, 

“I don’t know how to work with a person who changes his mind overnight,” he also said, as quoted by the Financial Times. He has described the shock-and-awe American leader as “volatile” and “like a chameleon.” 

But he reserved his most scathing remarks about Trump in his criticism of the latter’s move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Mahathir, in a rally in December 2017 or before his recent electoral victory, called Trump an “international bully” and a “villain.” 

“Today we have an international bully. Trump, go find someone your own size. This (Jerusalem plan) will only stir the anger of the Muslims,” he said, as quoted by Reuters.

ASEAN agenda

As Malaysia’s longest serving leader, Mahathir has also carved out a reputation as a pillar of the regional bloc ASEAN. With his stature and seniority, Mahathir is expected to inject new life into ASEAN, especially in terms of its stance on a variety of regional issues. His refusal to pander to China means Malaysia could join Vietnam as among the ASEAN countries most vocal against China’s incursions in the South China Sea. 

Mahathir could also provide the push for ASEAN to come up with a more concrete stance on the Rohingya refugee crisis.

A Muslim and a leader of a predominantly Muslin country, he has openly criticized the Myanmar government for its treatment of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group.

In contrast, it was Duterte’s presidency that led the Philippines to adopt a softer stance on China compared with its stance under the previous administration. Under Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines was one of ASEAN’s strongest voices against Beijing, even successfully taking China to court.

As for the Rohingya issue, Duterte had once described the crisis as a “genocide” but then apologized for it. He had also told Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to ignore criticisms about her government’s human rights abuses.  

Terrorism, piracy

On this issue, Duterte and Mahathir are on common ground. Duterte himself said these two topics will be discussed during their Monday bilateral meeting. Mahathir, in his previous tenure as prime minister, spoke of the need to address the “root causes” of terrorism, as quoted by Al Jazeera. Like the Philippines, Malaysia has its share of bomb attacks done by Muslim extremists. The predominantly Muslim country has its own racial tensions to address. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.