Speaking at the 33rd Asia Pacific Roundtable here, he said right now the cohesiveness of nations is crucial, more than at any other period in contemporary history.
This is because present geopolitical uncertainties and the looming battle for trade supremacy have yet again threatened the determination of countries to rise above partisanship and re-alignments.
“While we welcome international collaborations in ensuring the security and peace in and around the region, we also do not wish to be dragged into the one-upmanship of powerful nations and their military presence in our zone of peace, freedom and neutrality,” he said in his keynote address entitled “New Malaysia in a Changing Regional Order”.
Dr Mahathir said it has been shown that the interests of small nations could be defended if they unite as a regional grouping and Southeast Asia’s ASEAN has been credited as one of the more successful regional organisations ever established.
The region has long witnessed first-hand regional and global power play but it prevailed, became much wiser and collectively guarded its independence and neutrality.
As such, Dr Mahathir said nations had to re-prioritise and re-orientate mindsets from a lose-lose war scenario to a win-win commercial prospect.
However, he said this required a strong political will as issues of freedom of navigation and maritime security would be better handled through cooperation, not confrontation.
“A major challenge for all of us now is the US-China trade war. Its deterioration from a trading skirmish to a trade war has been most disappointing, with the prospect of worsening into a long-term Cold War,” he said.
If that happens, the premier said it would impact negatively on the rest of the world, and both the United States and China would not be spared either since the purpose of any war is to hurt each other.
“I hope the US and China will soon see enough sense to replace conflict with cooperation. Everyone will stand to gain much more when we collaborate with each other, but healthy competition should also be acceptable,” he stressed.
As for Malaysia, Dr Mahathir said the country’s external security priorities would continue to be self-evident – the promotion of a peaceful, stable and strategically autonomous neighbourhood.
Where there has been a willingness to negotiate with the shared goal of peace, there is hope, he said.
In relation to this, he said he also believed such prospects could exist in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, between the government, vigilante groups and the Rohingya community.
“If a country or region can deal with its own challenges successfully without creating problems for others, there is no need for external intervention, something that sovereign nations generally do not like,” he added.