EAEC: A return to the old days of Mahathir versus the US?

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Picture Credit: Screen grab of Mahathir speaking
 

In recent times, under the Najib Razak regime, Malaysia and the United States were not on any collision course, albeit for the temporary rebuff from President Donald Trump on Malaysia’s trade surplus with the U.S.

While there have been no real conflicts between Malaysia and the United States on their foreign policies, the return of Malaysia as Prime Minister may generate some spark between the two nations.

Perhaps we may see a return to the old days of Dr Mahathir lambasting the U.S in the current trade war that Malaysia will soon grapple with, or on some pertinent regional and international matters where both countries may find some colliding walls.

But, after the shredding of the famous ‘American Pivot’ and the U.S. retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the door is wide open for countries like Malaysia to navigate with greater freedom in their choice of global partners.

This will augur well for the Southeast Asian region. The Asean’s dealings with China, impacted by the new U.S. strategy of direct confrontation with Beijing in the South China Sea, may see a new light if Dr Mahathir’s EAEC finally takes shape.

While Mahathir’s foreign policy will be ‘east’ driven, it will not ignore America or the European Union as well as the Arab world. However, the revival of the EAEC, if it takes shape, will indicate a change in Malaysia’s external economic and geopolitical policies.

Dr Mahathir said he is reviving the idea of an East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC), again, 21 years later. The EAEC failed to take-off, because China was not ready, according to the Malaysian Prime Minister.

Interestingly enough, it is thus highly probable that Dr Mahathir is bidding for the EAEC’s revival with China as a regional ally in mind.

This is not what the Americans would want and the idea might just trigger the anger of U.S. President Donald Trump, but it will not dampen Dr Mahathir’s stance.

Knowing Dr Mahathir, who had proven to be an ace in foreign relations during his first tenure as Prime Minister, the Asians may pull it off this time, if the right conditions are met.

Interestingly enough, Mahathir made the announcement of the revival of the EAEC during the Nikkei conference in Tokyo.

Knowing that Japan was against the idea when it was first mooted, Dr Mahathir may have taken a gambit announcing it in Japan. Or he may have discussed it in private with the Japanese leadership before calling for its revival.

Dr Mahathir had proposed the formation of the EAEC in 1997, during his first tenure as PM. The idea is to unite North Asia and Southeast Asia into a one organisation which would encompass Asean countries, China, Japan and South Korea.

The new version of the EAEC will probably be expanded to include other countries such as India and those in central Asia, Dr Mahathir suggested.

The elderly leader mentioned the objections from the US at the time he first formulated the idea, adding that the US is now more isolationist and would not make demands for the rejection of the idea.

But with Trump’s foreign policy still in the making, that is not fully formulated, the US administration may press potential member states to rethink their plans to support Dr Mahathir on the EAEC.

Dr Mahathir thinks the EAEC would help weaker nations to be in a better position to negotiate with more powerful countries like China and he believes China will adhere to the idea.

However, with Trump’s erratic behaviour, Malaysia may have to prepare for a possible trade jolt from the US, such as the imposition of tariffs or the simple barring of Malaysian products in the United States.

Analysts believe the US might see Malaysia as anti-American if the EAEC goes forward, and may be seen as yet another protectionist bloc where it would be difficult for American goods to penetrate.

The US is Malaysia’s biggest destination for electronic products among other items exported to the US.

On paper, the EAEC aims to enhance economic cooperation, promote and protect free trade, accelerate economic growth, promote open regionalism and contribute to a multilateral trading system.

The US is against the idea of free trade, promoting ‘America First’ instead.