BEIJING - Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has called on China’s leadership to help solve his country’s fiscal problems, as he tries to revise major Beijing-backed projects signed under his scandal-plagued predecessor.
The 93-year-old leader, who returned for a second stint as premier following a shock election win in May, has railed against a series of deals struck with Chinese state-owned companies by the administration of toppled leader Najib Razak.
His government has suspended China-backed projects worth more than $22 billion, including a major rail link, and Mahathir had pledged to raise the issue of what he views as unfair terms related to some of the deals on his five-day trip.
During a Monday news conference with Premier Li Keqiang at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Mahathir thanked China for agreeing to increase imports of specialty agricultural products, such as durian.
But even as he welcomed the agreements, Mahathir also said he expected more from the world’s second-largest economy.
“I believe that China will look sympathetically towards the problems that we have to resolve and perhaps help us in resolving some of our internal fiscal problems,” he said.
Mahathir later met President Xi Jinping, who told him the two countries must “properly address existing problems based on the principles of mutual respect and equal consultation,” according to state broadcaster CCTV.
Earlier — after Li defended free trade in a question about the U.S.-China trade war and asked Mahathir if he agreed with him — the Malaysian leader warned that wealthy countries should not use their riches to take advantage of less developed nations.
“There is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries just in terms of open free trade. It must also be fair trade,” he said.
CCTV later said Mahathir told Xi that China “has historically never colonized Malaysia” and China’s development is “not a threat” to his country.
During his nine-year rule, Najib was accused of cutting quick deals with Beijing in return for help paying off debts linked to a massive financial scandal that ultimately helped bring down his long-ruling coalition.
Last week Mahathir had said he would try to cancel or modify the previous administration’s agreements with China.
As well as the rail link, which would have run from the Thai border to Kuala Lumpur, the government has suspended a China-backed project to build pipelines after alleging that almost all the money for the work was paid out but only a fraction of the project had been completed.
Mahathir is trying to reduce Malaysia’s national debt, which has ballooned to some $250 billion.
Despite the threat to revise China-linked contracts, Mahathir sought to strengthen business ties with Beijing during the trip.
He met the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, in the eastern city of Hangzhou on Saturday. Mahathir also oversaw the signing of a cooperation agreement between Chinese auto firm Geely and troubled Malaysian carmaker Proton.
Geely in May took a 49.9 percent stake in Proton.
China is the top trading partner of Malaysia, which is home to a substantial ethnic Chinese minority.
Relations were warm under the previous government, and Chinese investment in the country surged as Beijing signed deals for major infrastructure and construction projects.
But critics said there was often a lack of transparency and the terms, such as interest rates on loans, were unfavorable to Malaysia, fueling suspicions about Najib’s real motives.
Najib and his cronies are accused of plundering billions of dollars from a sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB, in an audacious fraud. Najib, who has been charged over the scandal, denies any wrongdoing.
Mahathir has courted Japan in recent weeks, announcing plans for a big yen-denominated loan when he visited Tokyo. Mahathir recently revived the Look East Policy from the 1980s, which sought to take Japan’s industrialization as a road map for the country’s development.
His shift away from China is also seen as an opportunity for the United States, worried at Beijing’s growing regional clout and building of islands in the South China Sea.