TOKYO — Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Monday he supports free trade but small countries like his should unite in a broad group to deal with challenges, especially as America is turning protectionist.
Speaking at a Tokyo conference, Mahathir called for a free trade group that is not ruled by the U.S. but one that allows smaller and developing countries to not fall behind powerful countries.
America is now "indulging in protected trade," he said at the "The Future of Asia" conference hosted by the Nikkei newspaper. "If America, a huge country with the biggest economy in the world ... believes in restriction of trade, it is not justified." He said small countries can compete in an arena where they are given adequate help.
"The United States in the past seemed to want to impose its wills on all international organizations — Either we follow or else, we have to pay high price. That's not the way the nations should behave upon negotiation," Mahathir said. "All countries should have equal voice."
President Donald Trump has imposed steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and is now threatening tariffs on auto imports, moves already being criticized in Europe and other industrial nations.
Mahathir said he is seeking a new organization in Asia where countries with different capacities to compete are given due consideration, comparing it with playing golf, where "the weakest players get the highest handicaps" so the competition is fairer.
"It is the same with trade," he said. He did not give a specific free trade group he had in mind.
Mahathir also said regional countries should only have one trade group of the like-minded, rather than being divided in to smaller groups with different rules.
The 92-year-old leader also urged other countries not to be cynical about North Korea's recent overtures toward denuclearization. He said Pyongyang's effort to improve its ties with the U.S. and abandon nuclear weapons would also help ease tension in Southeast Asia. Then the improved ties would enhance trade between the countries and prosperity of the world, he added.
A summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set for Tuesday in Singapore.