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Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he would prefer to take sides with China over the U.S. if his country was forced to take sides in the trade war, the South China Morning Post reported on Friday.
Although the 93-year-old Malaysian leader has been a strong critic of Chinese investments in his home country, he acknowledged that China is an economic power that presents opportunities.
Malaysia has to "accept that China is close to us", he told the SCMP. "And it is a huge market. We want to benefit from China's growing wealth."
Mahathir told the newspaper that the Southeast Asian country will decide how to handle relations with China independently.
"Well, it depends on how they behave. Currently the U.S. is very unpredictable as to the things they do," Mahathir told the SCMP in an interview in Manila where he was on an official visit.
Weighing in on fears about Beijing's growing clout, he said: "China's attitude, of course, is to gain as much influence as possible."
"But so far China doesn't seem to want to build an empire. So we will remain free people," he added.
The prime minister said that Beijing will make use of its economic strength "to achieve what is to China the best objective – that they have to grow richer and richer, and this is the ambition of all countries."
"With their wealth they are going to be in the same position that the Western countries were in the past," he said.
On the controversies surrounding Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, Mahathir said Malaysia was "watching closely."
The U.S. has said that it is worried about the security risks posed by Huawei, alleging that the company's equipment may be used by the Chinese government for espionage. Huawei has denied those claims.
"At the moment we have not found them a threat to our security. Not yet, maybe later," Mahathir told the paper. "But we cannot just follow actions taken by other countries because Chinese technology seems to be ahead of Western technology."