Was Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s recent warning of a “new version of colonialism” rising in Asia a veiled attack at China?

Far from it, the 93-year-old said in a wide-ranging BBC HardTalk interview that aired on Tuesday.

Some Western geopolitics watchers had suggested Mahathir’s comments during a joint press conference with Premier Li Keqiang during an August visit to Beijing were an expression of his new government’s unease over China’s rising economic and strategic dominance in Asia.

Mahathir made the comment after Li, asked about Beijing’s ongoing trade war with the United States, turned to the elder statesman and asked if Malaysia supported free trade.

[Chinese investors are] still coming, they still want to invest in Malaysia
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

Mahathir replied that “free trade should also be fair trade”, adding there should not be a situation where “there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries”.

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Video clips of the comment went viral after several news outlets used it to suggest Mahathir was leading a resistance against China amid rising suspicion that its “Belt and Road Initiative” to open trade with Eurasian countries was a type of debt-trap diplomacy.

In the interview in London with the BBC’s Zeinab Badawi, the Malaysian leader said this was an inaccurate portrayal of his comments.

Asked whether he had said the Chinese were engaging in “debt colonialism”, he replied: “I did not accuse the Chinese.

“I merely said that there were other forms of colonialism and one of them was neocolonialism, [a term] which was coined by President Sukarno,” he said, referring to Indonesia’s late independence leader.

Sukarno was one of the foremost proponents of the Non-Aligned Movement set up in 1961 as an alternative for nations that did not want to fall under the diplomatic umbrellas of either the United States or the former Soviet Union during the cold war.

Further pressed, Mahathir said Chinese investors were “still coming, they still want to invest in Malaysia”.

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“They’ve seen me, many of them have seen me recently and they don’t seem to be in any way angry with me because of what I said regarding colonialism,” the prime minister said.

Asked again if he saw the belt and road plan as a new form of colonialism, Mahathir said “not at all” but he objected to Chinese money being used to build cities in foreign countries.

That criticism appeared to be a reference to his repeated condemnation of the sprawling US$100 billion Forest City project being built in Malaysia by the Chinese developer Country Garden Holdings.

The interview also saw Mahathir touch on the South China Sea dispute – just as the issue was flaring up once again after a Chinese warship forced a US destroyer to change course near Spratly Islands.

He reiterated his position that China – which claims a wide swathe of the South China Sea under its so-called ‘nine-dash’ line – “has a right to go wherever it wants to go” but should not “check or prevent ships” from passing through the waterway.

He said the dispute could escalate if “people begin to irritate and provoke China”. Asked if he was referring to the administration of US President Donald Trump, Mahathir said: “You can guess, I don’t have to mention the word, I’m not allowed.”

The interview with the BBC capped a hectic week for Mahathir, who addressed the United Nations General Assembly last week.

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It was his first appearance at the UN in 15 years – after his May 9 general election victory over former prime minister Najib Razak saw him resume a job he held from 1981 to 2003.

In the UN speech, Mahathir blasted Israel for its occupation of Palestinian land, and showed little remorse when asked in the BBC interview about his past reputation as an anti-Semite.

“If you are going to be truthful, the problem in the Middle East began with the creation of Israel. That is the truth. But I cannot say that,” he said.

Asked why he had referred Jews as “hook-nosed” in his 1970 book The Malay Dilemma, Mahathir said: “They are hook-nosed. Many people called the Malays fat-nosed. We didn’t object, we didn’t go to war for that.”