Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Monday, 11 June, that his country will remain friendly with China, which invested billions of dollars during the previous Najib Razak government, but will not be “indebted to China”.

“We have to deal with China whether we like it or not. We should deal with it as a group,” Mahathir told an international seminar in Tokyo.

Mahathir said the ideal would be a broad trade pact such as the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC), which he proposed during his previous term in office.

“Yes, I am still in favour of EAEC,” he said.

Mahathir, 92, returned as premier last month after a stunning election victory over Najib, promising to stamp out corruption and lower living costs.

His decision to visit Japan first was seen by some analysts as an example of the government’s desire to put some distance between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.

The new government has said some Chinese companies are possibly linked to the graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that contributed to Najib’s downfall.

Mahathir made no reference to 1MDB in Tokyo.

Speaking at a news conference, Mahathir referred to the Chinese investments and projects during the Najib era which he believes will leave Malaysians with billions of dollars in debt.

The new government is reviewing a $14 billion local rail line to be built by Chinese companies, and has already withdrawn from a high-speed rail project with neighbour Singapore.

Mahathir said he hoped to begin a new national car project to follow Proton, the company founded in 1983 during his first term but has struggled in recent years.

Geely bought 49.9 percent of Proton last year, marking the Chinese automaker’s first push into Southeast Asia.

Malaysia had the skills and technology needed to design and produce the new car, Mahathir said, but he added that some car parts were very expensive and could be sourced from other countries, including Japan.

“I am willing to serve, if that is the wish of the people, as long as they want me, but of course I don’t know how long I will last,” he said.

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