Nov 8, 2006

Australia's Ties With Asia Hampered, Says Dr Mahathir

MELBOURNE, Nov 8 (Bernama) -- Former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said Australia's chances of forging close ties with Asia were hampered by its closeness with the United States, the Australian Associated Press (AAP) reports.

He said New Zealand had a better chance than Australia of forging close ties with Asia's emerging economies.

In Wellington, New Zealand, for a public lecture, Dr Mahathir told reporters that Australia and New Zealand's attempts to forge closer links with Asia through groupings such as the East Asia Summit would depend on their mindset.

New Zealand was more prepared to identify itself with Asia, he said. "Australia seems to identify itself with Europe and America. New Zealand has got a completely different world view and it's also not so willing to identify itself with Europe and America," AAP quotes him as saying.

"I think it's good to be able to sit and talk with New Zealand."

He said Australian Prime Minister John Howard's attempts to represent the United States' interests in the region did not help its cause.

"When people talk about becoming (the US's) deputy sheriff, that's not very welcome in our region."

Dr Mahathir said President George Bush was not someone people should get close to.

The United States now was having a negative influence on regional groupings such as the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum.

"We see in America, for example, fear that outsiders might be doing some harm," he is reported as saying.

"The friendliness that is so among Americans immediately after the Second World War has all but disappeared. It's suspicious of everyone."

He cited the rigorous checks Muslims visiting the United States were put through as an example. It's long-term policy of "containment" of China was also questionable, he said. But Dr Mahathir did not expect fast progress on regional initiatives such as the East Asia Summit's aim of creating a pan-Asian trading bloc -- taking in Australia and New Zealand -- by 2015.

"Europe took almost 50 years to come together and form the European Union, and Europe is much more homogeneous and much more equally developed than the countries of South-East Asia. It will take a very long time."

The grouping, which includes the 10 Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as China, India and South Korea, could take up to 100 years, he said.

Such groupings allowed countries to discuss common problems and also lent political weight to issues taken up with other groupings, such as the EU.

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