All eyes on Najib’s White House visit next week

 |Sep 8, 2017
MO file pic credit Azrol Ali.

KUALA LUMPUR: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s visit to the White House next week is expected to see several issues being addressed namely potential defense deals, among others.

A Washington publication predicted that the meeting will make headlines in what it said will be a heavily monitored visit, where the true test for US-Malaysia ties is not about the manner of how the meeting goes but more towards how both nations handle challenges to its relations in the future.

In an article written by The Diplomat’s Associate Editor Prashanth Parameswaran, he said that for all the focus on the Prime Minister himself, the fact still remains that the US and Malaysia have formed cooperation on various issues under six different prime ministers since Malaysia achieved its independence in 1957.

This, he said, despite disagreements on matters involving economic policy, human rights, and US foreign policy in the Middle East.

“And even though bilateral ties had hit new heights under Barack Obama – with both sides elevating ties to the level of a comprehensive partnership and Malaysia becoming a member of key US-led initiatives, be it the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL – incidents like the 1MDB scandal and issues like human trafficking continued to pose complications for ties.

“The initial forecast for US-Malaysia relations under (Donald) Trump seemed to be rather gloomy, with Malaysian policymakers, like their regional counterparts, worrying about the implications of a so-called America First foreign policy with the nixing of TPP, the release of a trade hit-list, the questioning of the One China policy, and the Trump travel ban,” he said.

He pointed out that as the Asia’s policy by the Trump administration starts to form, common grounds begin to show in issues such as North Korea which he said opened the door to the White House for Najib.

Najib’s visit also aims to work towards progress between the US-Malaysia relationship with the official agenda itself expected to be presented in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The visit is expected to be held amid tight security taking into account top agenda items including North Korea, counterterrorism, and maritime security – expected defense deals, the timing of the visit (which coincides with September 11), as well as the nature of some of Najib’s more private engagements and the 1MDB controversy.

Prashanth said such progress cannot be ignored especially at the beginning of a new US administration.

He stressed that it is important to remember that the true test for US-Malaysia relations is the ability of both sides to manage three key challenges.

“The first of these relates to reliability of the other, both with respect to the relationship as well as in the stance towards regional and global issues,” he said, alleging that there are those in Washington who have developed concern about whether Najib’s personal quest for domestic survival is absorbed into Malaysia’s foreign policy.

He pointed out that Malaysia and the US share the same interest, namely in fighting the Islamic State threat as well addressing China’s growing assertiveness in maritime domain.

This leads to the second key challenge which is minding the gap with respect to threat perceptions.

“It is also understandable that the Trump administration has begun asking more of individual Southeast Asian states, including Malaysia, on issues such as North Korea given recent developments, even though reality is often much more complex than it is presented,” he wrote.

“The third and final issue is getting the balance right on rights,” he added.

In closing his observation, Prashanth said, “Of course, addressing these broader challenges will be much more difficult than simply seizing on immediate opportunities. But if the two countries are to seriously expand and deepen their comprehensive partnership, as U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia Kamala Lakhdhir said in her Independence Day message to Malaysians last month, they must confront hard realities rather than just engineering another soft landing.” – MO