Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad Warns Donald Trump Not to Provoke China

Malaysia's prime minister has told the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to not stoke tension with China, as relations between Washington and Beijing continue to worsen.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gave the warning after delivering a speech at a think tank in London Monday, while responding to a question about Trump's trade spat with China in light of Washington imposing additional tariffs worth $200 billion.

Trump has also accused China of interference in the upcoming midterm elections, and the U.S. recently sailed a warship close to disputed islands in the South China Sea. On Sunday, China reportedly canceled an annual security meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, The New York Times reported.

Mahathir appeared to express sympathy with Trump's position that Chinese imports hurt the American economy, but he advised dialogue and said Trump shouldn't send part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet to China.

"He should not send the Seventh Fleet there, because if you do that, you are going to provoke the Chinese, and they will send their fleet. There will be tension...and they might shoot at each other," he said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a news conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20. He says the U.S. should not provoke Beijing over trade. How Hwee Young/Pool via REUTERS

Mahathir added, "Always try have a dialogue with them, talk with them. I don't think the Chinese are so bad that you cannot talk with them. They are open to negotiation. You can negotiate in increasing import duties on goods coming from China, which actually hurt poor Americans."

Mahathir was addressing Chatham House on Monday in the British capital, outlining how democracy in Asia should develop.

"When you have a conflict, you either negotiate, or arbitrate or go to a court of law, and when you go to a court of law, you must accept the results," he concluded.

In May, the 93-year-old caused a huge shock when he beat his former protégé, Najib Razak, at the ballot. Najib, 65, has since been arrested and faces corruption charges in connection with claims he abused his position in receiving 2.6 million ringgit ($630 million) from the Saudi royal family in 2013.

Investigators said the money was siphoned off state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) through a complex web of transactions. Najib denies wrongdoing and says the money had given to him as a gift by Riyadh.

Mahathir told the audience that "a democratically ruler can behave like a dictator, and that's what happened to Malaysia since 2013," referring to Najib's last term as prime minister.

He added that Najib had come to believe it was acceptable "to bribe to get anything done."

Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak in Langkawi, Malaysia, on June 19. He faces corruption charges, spearheaded by the new prime minister. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

"Prime ministers are not paid very well," Mahathir said, "so if you want to bribe, and you don't have money, you have to think of some ways to get money, and the previous prime minister decided that he would steal the money," which could be used to "change the minds of people."

Authorities in several countries are investigating the 1MDB scandal. Mahathir said his government's priority was to go for the cases where evidence has already been gathered, such as that from the U.S. Department of Justice. "We are following the money trail," he said.

Mahathir is the world's oldest elected leader, but he insists he is only an interim one. The post is expected to be handed over to Anwar Ibrahim, president of the People's Justice Party and leader of the Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Anwar was released from jail after a royal pardon in 2015. He had been jailed under Najib's premiership on sodomy charges that rights groups say were trumped up.

Mahathir said a strong coalition was required to overthrow Najib, and that past differences had to be put aside.

"I am working well with Anwar," Mahathir said, "in two or three years' time, when I am due to retire, I will give the premiership to him. I have no problem with that."