KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said Asean has done a good job in maintaining the region's stability despite facing up against "big powers".
"Asean is one of the few regional organisations that are still functioning today," Tun Dr Mahathir said. He added that other regional groups such as the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) trilateral bloc are "not doing very well".
"Asean has stayed together, and by and large, we have the same approach to resolving our problems," he said.
Dr Mahathir was speaking in response to questions from the audience at the ISIS Praxis Conference on Monday (Oct 21), hosted by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.
The Malaysian Prime Minister pointed out that as a "strategic area of the world", South-east Asia sees much of the global trade and businesses pass through the region.
"To that extent, you have to acknowledge that at this moment at Strait of Malacca and South China Sea, passage of ships is still free without any obstruction," he said, noting that this has been the regional group's achievement.
"But once people start sending warships to this area, there'll be tension," Dr Mahathir said.
"Our appeal to the big powers is to keep out all these weapons of war in this area... Our appeal seems to be heard by the big powers. So far, they've not deliberately created any crisis."
Dr Mahathir was likely referring to Sino-US tensions that have existed for years. China has built military bases on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea - where it has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan - while the United States conducts freedom of navigation patrols to contest Chinese claims in the disputed waters.
The world's two biggest powers are also locked in a bitter trade war, with the US imposing export tariffs on a range of Chinese goods that eventually culminated in sanctions, and China taking tit-for-tat for measures,
Malaysia has sought to maintain a middle ground between the two countries, seeing increased US investments this year while China remains Malaysia's largest trade partner.
The Pakatan Harapan administration has also resumed the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project that will be built by a state-owned Chinese firm after negotiating for a cost reduction.
"China is one of the richest countries in the world. And rich countries make good market," Dr Mahathir said. "For Malaysia, there are opportunities for trading and we want to continue our good relations with China."
While many view China's infrastructure project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with apprehension and criticisms abound over the country's foreign policy that is seen to be putting poorer nations in a "debt-trap diplomacy", Dr Mahathir pointed that understanding the BRI's purpose is important.
"We support the idea of One Belt, One Road but we need to find out what this exactly means. We can't, without proper study, give 100 per cent support to it," he said, using another name for the BRI.
Dr Mahathir also noted that Malaysians remain particularly sensitive and attached to discussions on race.
"We don't want our people to think that after being influenced by the West, we are now being influenced by China," Dr Mahathir added, given that Malaysians' feeling about their own race is "still dominant".
While the Premier acknowledged that China "will wield a great influence over the whole world in the future... it is not for us (Malaysia) to promote Chinese ideologies but to find out how we can benefit from that".