Our job to keep peace in East Asia - by Mahathir

WITH the prophets of doom predicting that the booming economies of East Asia will collide in the next century, plunging the region into conflict, Dr Mahathir Mohamad remains the most persistent preacher of the virtues of co-operation.

The Malaysian Prime Minister admits that his vision of an East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) did not enjoy the best of starts: ''Malaysia sort of blurted out the idea after being very disappointed with the failure of a GATT [General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade] meeting. Our negotiators came back and told us that Europe and America were not looking at our problems, and were concerned only with their own trade issues.

''We all got worked up in a cabinet meeting, and came up with the idea of grouping the countries of East Asia together. Some ministers announced this to the press before we had time to consult our brothers in the ASEAN countries. Since then I've been tosee President Suharto and apologised to him for being a little bit brash.

''We can explain the merits and demerits of the idea, but if you ask us to undo the mistake in announcing it too early, that is not possible.'' Last week he would have done his best to persuade Mr Miyazawa on his sweep from Indonesia and Malaysia through Thailand to Brunei that the EAEC needs Japan's involvement to be effective.

The Japanese premier's pronouncement of the grandly-named ''Miyazawa Doctrine'' in Bangkok on Saturday will have encouraged Dr Mahathir, in that it commits Tokyo to working closely with ASEAN, especially on the development of Indo-China, but it falls short of an endorsement of EAEC. While the United States continues to regard EAEC as a potential threat, Japan is unlikely to do more than offer encouragement from the sidelines.

Dr Mahathir is convinced that ASEAN and an EAEC offer the best hope of heading off regional conflicts: ''Neighbours tend to quarrel with one another, and instead of having a war, the countries of ASEAN decided that we should sit around the table and discuss our problems, and try to resolve them through negotiations.'' HE points to the rapid economic growth of the ASEAN countries as proof of the wisdom of that basic political decision, and insists it has no protectionist tendencies. ''We have managed to have economic growth as well as democracy. Now a lot of other countries are concentrating on economic development rather than on the promotion of ideologies. Even China has adopted the free enterprise system and concentrated on economic growth.

''I think China is no longer interested in foreign adventures, conquests, and spreading their ideology. As a result China has grown faster than anybody else, and I think Vietnam is well on the way to doing what China has done.'' The rise of the East, and the erosion of the West's traditional advantages, is a favourite theme. He sees the EAEC giving the region a louder voice at world gatherings. With the trade blocs in Europe and North America, he argues that it is even more important.

He praises Japan for representing East Asian opinion when bodies like the Group of Seven meet, but wants the region to speak with one voice, not several. ''We are going to keep on pushing this idea. I think we can convince China, and Vietnam perhaps, and eventually I'm sure Japan would not want to be the odd one out.'' Dr Mahathir is optimistic that the new US administration will be more sympathetic. ''I think one of the people most vehemently against the EAEC is now out: James Baker. We want to be friendly with the United States, but we also want the right to voice our thoughts.'' Despite his frequent criticisms of Western governments, Dr Mahathir denies he is anti-Western. ''I'm pro-Western when they do things right, but I'm anti-Western when they do things wrong. For example, I'm in full support of the United States for their move into Somalia. As far as I'm concerned, if they shoot General Aidid today, I will not regret it at all. I won't shed a single tear, because he deserves it. ''Britain became very difficult with Malaysia when I first became Prime Minister. So we retaliated with our ''Buy British Last'' policy. Now we are very friendly. I get on very well with John Major.'' He is very proud of what his country has achieved since throwing off the colonial shackles. ''After independence, the idea was that we go along the sameway, and not achieve anything more remarkable than during colonial times, when we were mainly a producer of raw materials.

''Some colonial officers were convinced that Malaysia would regress. Such was their faith that the expatriates who were leaving and were being paid pensions asked to be paid in British pounds, not Malaysian ringgit. We agreed, but at that time the British pound was worth almost eight ringgit. At one time it went down to 2.80 to the pound. So I think they regretted their lack of belief in Malaysia.'' D R Mahathir joined the list of Asian leaders who have criticised Mr Chris Patten's move to quicken the pace of democracy in Hongkong before 1997.

''Somebody like Mr Patten should have been sent to Hongkong 140 years ago. It's a little bit late now. People are bound to ask what is the sudden urge to democratise after all these years.

''In Malaysia, we were asked to adopt democracy when we became independent, with no training and no knowledge. Democracy is not something that anybody can take on and make it work - look what's happening in Russia and Eastern Europe.

''Although democracy managed to survive in Malaysia, in many of the British countries, especially in Africa, democracy failed miserably. Very soon they abolished it and had one-party rule or some form of dictatorship.

''So suddenly Hongkong is going to become democratic, knowing full well that it is going to have a head-on clash with China in 1997. You can't even claim that democracy is a tradition.

''I don't have this idea that it was a great conspiracy on the part of the West against China, but why do it now?''