Visiting Beijing in August, Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s recently elected prime minister, startled his hosts by boldly warning against a “new version of colonialism.” He was referring to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the trillion-dollar infrastructure plan which aims to put the People’s Republic at the heart of a global commercial web.
Mahathir’s invocation of colonialism could only have wounded leaders in Beijing, for the Chinese nation-state has built its self-image on anti-colonialist rhetoric. In its official historical narrative of its “century of humiliation,” devious Westerners imposed blatantly unequal treaties on China, cruelly curtailing its sovereignty. Japan then subjected the country to savage invasions and harsh exploitation, turning large parts of China into a Japanese colony.
Quite consciously, Chinese President Xi Jinping has presented the Belt and Road as the opposite — a noble attempt to create a “community with a shared future for mankind.” But from Malaysia to Montenegro, unsustainable debt and rising trade deficits have provoked fears that China is acquiring, in colonialist style, too much power over remote foreign treasuries and the domestic politics of many countries.
Sri Lanka, for instance, is plunging deeper into debt due to the high interest rates on Chinese loans taken by the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, in part to build a port with Chinese help and for Chinese use. In Malaysia, Mahathir said in Beijing, China’s “pouring in too much money, which we cannot afford, cannot repay.” Those deals were signed by Najib Razak, Mahathir’s scandal-tainted predecessor, who grew closer to China as he faced more pressure over allegations of corruption at home.
Mahathir is prone to spin conspiracy theories. At the same time, the 93-year-old did personally witness not only the subjugation of his country by the British, but its occupation by the Japanese from 1943 to 1945. On this occasion, the Malaysian leader has a historically well-grounded suspicion of how insidiously colonialism sprouts in both its Eastern and Western variants.
Mahathir himself once pointed out how during Western dominance over Asia “our economies were structured to serve the European demand for raw materials and natural resources.” Financial manipulation was another means of structural readjustment, as in late 19th-century Egypt, where the government had undertaken massive infrastructural projects underwritten by Western bankers. The British first leveraged Egyptian debt to reorient the country’s economic policy for the benefit of Western investors. And then, faced with local opposition, they eventually occupied the country.
The British also moved elsewhere, most famously in India, from being traders and investors to being colonialists. But, for East Asians, it is Japan that offers the most sobering tale of how commercial interests aimed at general uplift can very quickly turn malignant.
Forced out of its isolation by Western powers in the mid-19th century, Japan didn’t set out to be a colonialist power. It had, however, wanted to accumulate “wealth and military power,” and Japanese politicians and thinkers convinced themselves that this required guaranteed access to the markets and resources of Asia.
This turned out to be only one step away from entrenching Japan’s interests militarily and economically in China, Taiwan and South Korea. Even countries as far away as Indonesia were victimized by Japan’s economic self-seeking.
The Japanese arrived in Mahathir’s country as investors in rubber and iron after 1905. By the 1930s, the Japanese came to see the Malay Peninsula with its commodities and markets as indispensable to their empowerment. And they disguised their self-interest with soothing rhetoric about creating a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
Military occupation duly followed in 1943 as the Japanese felt that their web of commercial interests was imperiled. With violent coercion and brutal exploitation becoming the rule from Japan-occupied Singapore to Burma, the idea of “co-prosperity” came to be seen as a sick joke across East Asia.
Mahathir hasn’t forgotten this history of inadvertent colonialism. To his ears, China’s proposed “community with a shared future for mankind” probably sounds an awful lot like Japan’s “co-prosperity sphere.” Chinese leaders would do well to heed an old and experienced man’s warning.