Photo/IllutrationMalaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Bangkok on Oct. 24 (Phuriphat Sangkhapat)

BANGKOK--For the good of the world, Japan should “blunt the aggressiveness” of the United States and China to ease tensions, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in an exclusive interview here with The Asahi Shimbun.

Mahathir, 93, said on Oct. 24 that if the trade war between China and the United States intensifies, it might affect not only his country, but other countries around the globe.

Mahathir, who served as Malaysian prime minister for 22 years from 1981 and regained the post in May, was visiting Bangkok on Oct. 24-25 for a meeting with Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s interim prime minister.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Question: How are the tensions between the United States and China affecting Malaysia?

Mahathir: At this moment, not very much. Obviously there will be a lot of unforeseen circumstances which may occur, and that may affect our trade. Malaysia depends upon trade.

Q: What kind of role can Japan play?

A: Japan obviously is a kind of counterbalance for China, although China is much bigger. Japan is in a position to blunt the aggressiveness of either the United States or China. Japan should remain neutral (and avoid) irritating both countries.

Q: The Japanese government’s position is always very close to that of the United States. How do you feel about that?

A: We should be close to the U.S. when they do something right. When they do something bad, we have to tell them the U.S. is bad.

Q: How do you see Donald Trump as a leader?

A: I think I cannot make out what his stance is, apart from saying “America first.”

He is very protective of America. But if you are protective of America, you are not protecting other countries. And there will be conflicts. And going into trade wars is not the right way to make America great.

Q: You met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. What was your impression?

A: He is shaping up to be a very strong leader. On one hand, he is very strict on corruption and the like. On the other hand, he, like Trump, wants to make China great. So I think that would be his line of thought.

So there is bound to be conflict as America wants to make America great, and now China also wants (to be great.) And if they start to confront each other, it will be bad for the world.

When China was very poor before, people also complained that China is a threat. Now that China is rich, people still say China is a threat.

You have to make adjustments to live with China. We accepted that they are a powerful nation.

Q: Malaysia seems to be making some adjustments in its relationship with China, like suspending projects approved by the previous administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak. How is the new Malaysia dealing with China?

A: During Najib’s government time, they borrowed too much money from China, and he also gave contracts to China which were not fair to Malaysia. So even before we won (the May election), we already said we will have to reduce the borrowings incurred by the previous prime minister.

It is not that we are against China; it is because we cannot afford to have the railways projects, etc. It costs a lot of money.

Q: It has been pointed out that Southeast Asian countries have “backtracked from democracy,” such as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen strengthening his dictatorship and Thailand’s military administration, which has been in the authoritative status for more than four years. What do you think of the trend in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

A: Southeast Asian countries have tried democracy. Some have succeeded, some others have not succeeded. They only have elections, but sometimes it is said that elections are fraudulent.

But they are trying, and you must remember that European countries took 200 years to become liberal democratic. This democracy in Southeast Asia is only 60 years old since independence after the last war.

So there will obviously be some problems. You see, democracy is not the easiest system of government. So there will be changes. I think slowly, they will become more democratic.

Q: You have promised to abolish or stop oppressive laws, the sedition act. Have you made progress since the election?

A: Today, corruption is minimal. We have not seen corruption on the scale that the previous government showed. Today, also, we find that foreign and local investors are coming back and proposing to invest money in Malaysia.

And today, people generally feel free. They (and the media) can say things against the government or whatever because we don’t take action against people who criticize the government.

Q: Before the election, you said you are going to resign in two or three years and give the position to Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former vice prime minister. Is this still your plan?

A: Yes, I made a promise, and I will keep my promise. Within two years, three years, doesn’t matter.

Q: You are visiting Japan next month and receiving an award from the emperor. And you have said in New York and Fukuoka that you support Japan’s pacifist Constitution. Why do you support it?

A: I have been campaigning against war for a long time. Japan is the only country in the world that forbids war in the Constitution. In the Constitution, it does not allow Japan to fight aggressive wars.

She can defend herself, and that is why you have a defense force, but you should not have aggressive military power and attack other countries. So that is the first time that a major country regards war as not a solution to conflicts.

So that is why I feel the Japanese Constitution should be copied by all.

(This article was written by Mayumi Mori and Akihiko Kaise from Bangkok.)