Southeast Asian countries should band together and speak with one voice in global trade disputes with the US and European Union to avoid being bullied, according to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Speaking to a business forum in Bangkok on Saturday, Mahathir said the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations should leverage its market of 650 million people to gain a greater voice on the world stage. He said the bloc can learn from President Donald Trump and hit back, citing efforts in the west to boycott Malaysian palm oil.
“If you cut down on imports of palm oil from Malaysia, we will cut down on some of our imports from you,” Mahathir said. “Equal amount. We will do exactly what Mr. Trump does. Not a very nice man, but he does those things and we can learn even from people who aren’t so nice.”
Mahathir said Asean countries could threaten as a bloc to avoid buying certain goods in retaliation.
“We don’t want to go into a trade war but sometimes when they do things that are not nice to us, we have to be unnice to them,” he said. “Always try to speak with one voice. You go alone, you’ll be bullied.”
Speaking about the trade war between the US and China, Mahathir said it could go on for five years at “the very worst” if Trump is re-elected next year though people will “come to their senses one day.”
“I believe that the American people are not very happy — well some are very happy perhaps — but many people are not very happy with the present policies of their government,” Mahathir said. “Many are against this trade war.”
Trump is skipping the Asean meetings for the second straight year, and sending the lowest level American delegation since the Obama administration stepped up engagement with Southeast Asia in 2011.
Asian leaders at the summit are seeking a breakthrough in talks on the world’s largest trade pact, the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which has been jeopardised by last-minute requests from India after it earlier agreed to terms. An agreement would cover one-third of the global economy.
Attendees include Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, India’s Narendra Modi and a US delegation led by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.
Mahathir also said China was outstripping Southeast Asia and other regions on digital technology, and that the gap partly explained why Southeast Asia wasn’t “making full use” of its population. The Asean region needs to be better integrated and undertake education campaigns so that individuals and firms expand use of technology, he said.