In the clearest signal yet of his antipathy to multi-billion-dollar, Chinese-sponsored infrastructure schemes, the new prime minister of Malaysia today said his government will drop them if it can.
Comments by Mahathir Mohamad come just days before he flies to Beijing for his first visit to China since his surprise election victory in May.
In July his government suspended work on the $20bn East Coast Rail link, which is financed by Chinese banks and is being built by a giant Chinese state-owned firm.
Also suspended were two pipeline projects awarded in 2016 to China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau, together worth $2.3bn.
These and other projects were initiated under the government of Mahathir’s predecessor, Najib Razak, who is facing corruption charges, which Najib denies.
Mahathir has maintained that debt-burdened Malaysia cannot afford them.
"We don’t think we need those two projects. We don’t think they are viable. So if we can, we would like to just drop the projects," Mahathir said in an interview with The Associated Press today.
He said he wants to maintain good relations with China and welcomes its investment, but added that the projects must benefit Malaysia.
In June the ministry of finance called the pipelines project a "scandal" because, since the contracts were signed in November 2016, Malaysia had paid 88% of the cost of the pipelines even though only 13% of work had been completed.
If scrapping the projects altogether is not possible, Mahathir said he would put them on hold until the future.
At 93, Mahathir is a towering figure in Malaysian politics, serving an earlier, 22-year term as prime minister until 2003.
Image: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaking in Tokyo 10 June 2018 (Akulamatiau/Dreamstime)