The East Asia Summit Is an Opportunity to Strengthen U.S.-Malaysia Relations Beyond 2015

By Joshua Goodman

President Barack Obama speaks with Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on April 28. 2015. Source: The White House's flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

President Barack Obama speaks with Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on April 28. 2015. Source: The White House’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

As leaders gather in Kuala Lumpur for the East Asia Summit from November 21 to 22, President Barack Obama will have an opportunity to meet Prime Minister Najib Razak for the third time in 18 months. With the recent signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, trade between the two nations is expected to get a significant boost, which provides the leaders with space to discuss future goals in U.S.-Malaysia relations.

The United States should take this opportunity to both celebrate how far the two countries have come while at the same time proposing new ways forward for the relationship. Obama will need to address U.S. concerns about some human rights challenges in Malaysia and offer new avenues for deeper and more comprehensive cooperation in areas such as developing maritime domain awareness, tackling human trafficking and illegal fishing, and collaborating on science and technology.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Minister of Defense Hishammudin Hussein’s November 5 visit to U.S. aircraft carrier patrolling the South China Sea, in which Malaysia and China have overlapping claims, and the reported basing of P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft in eastern Malaysia are symbols of growing military cooperation. Combined with the economic prospects of the TPP, relations between the two countries seem stronger than ever.

U.S. military operations in the Middle East, once were a point of contention in the U.S.-Malaysia relationship, have now developed into an opportunity for cooperation as the two countries plan to operate a media center aimed at countering radical Islamist propaganda on social media.

The appointment of a U.S. legal adviser for cybercrime in Asia in Malaysia further underscores Kuala Lumpur’s acceptance of maintaining high standard legal and international trade regimes that are compatible with those of the United States

Challenges to the relationship center around a legal regime in Malaysia that uses tough sedition laws to silence the government’s critics, opposition politicians, journalists, and academics. Meanwhile, veteran opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was imprisoned early this year on charges of sodomy which a United Nations body has judged as politically motivated.

Further complicating Najib’s position is the scandal arising from the $700 million in unaccounted funds deposited in the prime minister’s bank account and linked to the embattled wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), for which the prime minister has yet to give a satisfactory answer. The slow and opaque investigation into these allegations has resulted in political friction between Najib and the opposition as well as some in his own party, the United Malays National Organization. The opposition has twice attempted to submit a motion for a vote of no-confidence against Najib in parliament.

During his trip to Malaysia for the East Asia Summit from November 21 to 22, Obama should advocate for fairness and legal reform in Malaysia while also acknowledging the tremendous prospects the two nations have for deepening bilateral ties.

The United States should use the strengths in its relationship with Malaysia to help shore up its human rights concerns perhaps by having a senior official traveling with Obama meet Anwar’s wife or another senior official in his party. Given the two countries’ successful cooperation in combating terrorism and cybercrime, the United States should suggest that the Malaysian government rethinks its use of tough sedition laws to restrict free speech under the lens of counterterrorism, and to begin to view its influential ethnically Chinese and Indian minority populations as assets rather than as challenges to the majority Malay population.

Ultimately, friendships are made by people. The American Chamber of Commerce finds that Malaysians are increasingly optimistic regarding future business prospects in ASEAN and with U.S. businesses. However, the latest Pew Global Attitudes study found that only 23 percent of Malaysians surveyed support a greater U.S. presence in the Asia Pacific, and only 38 percent think the TPP will be a good thing for Malaysia.

The United States must seek to develop closer ties with Malaysians at the grassroots level through both business and educational exchanges. Of particular value may be the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, launched by Obama, to help connect young potential Malaysian leaders with their American counterparts and provide them with educational opportunities and the enormously successful Fulbright program.

Malaysia is poised to take on a larger role in the leveraging of high technology both in industry and for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in its territorial seas. Malaysia, as it seeks to move up the value chain and to escape the middle income trap, would likely be very receptive to U.S. investment and collaboration in advanced industries such as biotechnology and information technology.

In line with its goal of providing security with rather than for its allies and partners, the United States should consider assuming a greater role as an information provider in addition to its role as a security provider. The United States can provide increased maritime domain awareness using its significant satellite-enabled ISR capabilities and supplying Malaysia equipment to bolster maritime security from the $259 million Obama has pledged for nations involved in disputes with China in the South China Sea.

In forging closer ties with Malaysia and in asserting the tradition of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the United States also needs to be mindful of Malaysia’s need to maintain strong and stable ties with its large neighbor, China. Malaysia is China’s third largest trading partner in Asia and its largest trading partner in ASEAN. Given the two nations’ long diplomatic history, Malaysia will not want to undermine its ties with China.

Key to developing a post-2015 agenda for strengthening U.S.-Malaysia ties will be to use areas of agreement to broach new issues in the bilateral relationship. Despite challenges, the United States and-Malaysia will have important opportunities to boost economic and security ties in the years ahead.

Mr. Joshua Goodman is a researcher with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.


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