BEIJING: Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad joined a parade of world leaders today for the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF), in a clear show of the country's commitment and support for China's ambitious move to redefine the global economy.
The forum, at the China National Convention Centre, was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who conceptualised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 to promote not just economic but also cultural exchange.
The way Malaysia has dealt with the Asian economic superpower, by bringing what is seen as lopsided agreements back to the negotiating table, has heightened its profile here where 37 world leaders are gathered to seek a consensus on BRI projects.
Malaysia's successful handling of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project, which is the centerpiece of China's infrastructure push, has become a benchmark for other nations, making Dr Mahathir one of the most sought after world leaders here.
The prime minister was also among the few heads of government accorded the honour to present a speech at the launch, where he expressed his full support for the Belt and Road initiative.
"I am sure my country, Malaysia, will benefit from the project.
"Yes, the Belt and Road idea is great. It can bring the land locked countries of Central Asia closer to the sea. They can grow in wealth and their poverty reduced. Everyone will benefit from the ease of travel and communication that the development of the Belt and Road project will bring."
The prime minister cautioned, however, that while the passages created would enrich all the littoral states, as much as "the great nations of the East and West", threats to these states have unfortunately increased with oil spills and dumping of waste at sea.
"But these are designated international waters and the littoral states cannot collect tolls to finance the work of cleaning up.
"If we designate the Straits of Malacca as international, then the international community must assume responsibility for keeping the seas clear and unpolluted. But so far the responsibility falls on the littoral states. They are the ones to suffer pollution and they have to maintain a sizeable force to clean up the sea and their shores. It does not seem fair that the poor littoral states should be burdened with this responsibility."
The prime minister also underscored the importance of keeping the passages opened up for trade safe as terrorism and wars would make them incapable of delivering the benefits promised.
"The world claims to be civilised. But these civilised people still resort to killing each other to resolve problems. Their capacity to destroy is far greater than their capacity to build.
"It is imperative that the world become less primitive and reject the use of force and massacres in order to benefit from the opening up of new passages for trade and freight that the BRI promises."
Freedom of passage along these routes was also important, he stressed, as bureaucratic hassles would slow the speed of travel. He was confident that modern technology would save much time in this regard.
He noted that technologies along the passage could also be improved to respond to increased trade between East and West.
"If ships can be built bigger, why cannot trains be equally big to carry more goods and raw materials and people? Have we reached the limit in terms of the size and length of trains. I think not.
"If the rail gauge is widened, cannot we build bigger trains? Cannot we have longer trains, maybe a kilometre long? We have the technology and the money to bring about these improvements."
This is Dr Mahathir's second visit to China during his current term as prime minister and his ninth visit overall.
Under BRI or "yi dai yi lu" as it is called here in Mandarin, the Middle Kingdom hopes to recreate the ancient Silk Road that connects Asia to Europe.
China will, through the two-day forum, rally international support for what has been perceived as flagging interest in the six year old move to reshape half of the world through a land belt through Central Asia (Silk Road Economic Belt) and the sea road passing through the Indian Ocean (21st Century Maritime Silk Road), both reaching into Europe.
China faced strenuous objections and accusations in many countries of using Belt and Road projects, largely involving the building of ports, railroads, and highways, as “debt traps” or a “new colonialism”, a claim it has repeatedly denied. India, for example, is a prominent absentee at the forum.
Xi, in his keynote address, strove to allay fears and gave guidelines for future cooperation among participating countries.
Xi pledged to clean up his infrastructure programme.
“We need to maintain that all cooperation is conducted under the sun and work together to combat corruption with zero tolerance.”
He vowed that China will negotiate and sign high-standard free trade agreements with more countries, strengthen cooperation in customs, taxation, auditing and supervision, and establish a cooperation mechanism for jointly building the Belt and Road tax collection and management system.
The two-day forum carries the theme “Belt and Road Cooperation: Shaping a Brighter Shared Future” and is the second one since the BRI vision was shared by Xi.
The first forum, touted a dazzling diplomatic success, was in 2017.
Representatives from over 130 countries, and thousands of representatives from all walks of life have gathered here for the event.
All 10 Asean leaders are present at this year's forum.
Later tonight, Dr Mahathir and wife Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali will attend a welcome banquet hosted by Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan before heading to Yanqi Lake in the suburb of Huairou tomorrow for a leaders' roundtable.
A joint communique outlining the roadmap ahead for Belt and Road participants will be issued at the end of the roundtable.