Asia Politics

Malaysia's Mahathir: We try to use Huawei technology 'as much as possible'

Key Points
  • Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says his country tries to use Huawei technology '"as much as possible," shrugging off efforts by the United States to hem in the telecommunications giant over security concerns.
  • Speaking in Tokyo at a conference, Mahathir criticized the U.S. for actions he described as seeking confrontation with China in both trade and security.
  • "We have to accept that the U.S. cannot forever be the supreme nation in the world that can have the best technology in the world," he said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Mohd Rasfan | AFP | Getty Images

As many countries grapple with how seriously to take U.S. warnings that Huawei's technology can't be trusted, Malaysia's leader says the answer is unambiguous for his country.

The United States has pressed allied countries to ban technology made by the Shenzhen, China-based company, saying its devices and telecommunications systems could potentially pose a threat to a nation's security. That warning is premised primarily on perceptions that Chinese companies are not able to refuse Beijing's directives to support its intelligence gathering efforts. Huawei, for its part, has repeatedly denied that it would ever allow its products to be used for spying.

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Despite the back and forth about potential risks, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shrugged off such worries during an appearance Thursday in Tokyo when asked if his country has any plans to follow Washington's lead.

"We are too small to have any effect on a huge company like Huawei, whose research is far bigger than the whole of Malaysia's research capability," Mahathir said during a question and answer session at a conference sponsored by Japan's Nikkei media group.

"So we try to make use of their technology as much as possible," he said, dismissing concerns it poses a security threat to his country, at least.

Mahathir acknowledged there may indeed be some intelligence threat from Huawei. "But what is there to spy in Malaysia?" he asked.

Now 93, Mahathir served as Malaysia's prime minister from 1981 to 2003, and returned to the position last year after a shock election result that saw the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition swept from power. He has long been a critic of the West, particularly during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis when Malaysia, unlike Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, avoided an international bailout, imposing capital controls instead.

Mahathir said that the U.S. pressure on Huawei, along with the dispatching of warships to the South China Sea, demonstrate a weakening of the country and those actions show it needs to compete with China rather than confront it.

"We have to accept that the U.S. cannot forever be the supreme nation in the world that can have the best technology in the world," he said.

'Strong confrontation'

During his speech to the conference, Mahathir said China's rise is undeniable, and confronting it militarily is dangerous.

"We are still thinking of wars between China and other countries now that China has become rich and powerful," he said. "When it was poor we feared China, now that it is rich we also feared China."

But, referring to the United States, he said that "sending battleships into the area and carrying out exercises that may result in some strong confrontation" is not the answer.

The U.S. Navy frequently sends ships near islets and reefs that China has fortified and expanded in the South China Sea on so-called freedom of navigation missions. Other countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have contesting claims in the area.

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Mahathir said that such an approach could be the spark that leads to war, citing the origins of World War I in the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

"We cannot afford an incident like that to happen in the South China Sea, for example," he said.

Mahathir, who in the 1980s vowed to make Malaysia into a developed country by 2020, is credited with helping it achieve impressive economic growth. He has long been admired in Japan since instituting a "Look East Policy" in 1982, calling for Malaysia to eschew western development models and seek a path closer to home.

"They must accept that that capability can also be found in the East," he said of the U.S.