By Ernie Bower & Kathryn Tinker
President Barack Obama canceled plans to visit Kuala Lumpur on October 11 after Congress failed to reach a budget deal and forced a partial shutdown of the U.S. government. The White House is still evaluating whether the president will make it to Indonesia for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting and to Brunei for the East Asia Summit (EAS) and U.S.-ASEAN Summit.
President Obama’s team confirmed that Secretary of State John Kerry will go to Malaysia and the Philippines in the president’s place. Kerry will be accompanied to Malaysia by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.
Canceling Obama’s visit to Malaysia is a missed opportunity for the United States to move a solid bilateral relationship to the next level. While the White House may argue that the planned visit to Kuala Lumpur was less than 24 hours and was primarily to allow the president to speak at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, the visit would have been much more meaningful to millions of Malaysians.
The last U.S. president to visit Malaysia was Lyndon Johnson in 1966 during the Vietnam War. At the time, a visit to the small, newly independent nation was a surprising choice driven by concerns about the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Today, the fact that a U.S. president has not visited in nearly five decades is stunning.
Obama’s visit should take place as soon as possible. In fact, to recover from the self-inflicted geopolitical wound resulting from the trip being cancelled, the president should do three things:
First, he should talk to Americans about the importance of Asia generally and Southeast Asia specifically in domestic venues like Ohio, Texas, and Georgia. Obama should make the simple and compelling case that U.S. prosperity, health, and security are linked to this dynamic part of the world. He should tell U.S. citizens that they need to understand that fact and adapt their focus accordingly.
Second, Obama should visit Malaysia, the Philippines, and other Asian countries in an out of cycle trip this coming spring, and bring chief executive officers of U.S. companies and civil society leaders with him. The trip would emphasize the U.S. commitment to do business with Malaysia and the region. Leading with economic engagement is a necessary condition for a long term and sustainable security strategy in the region.
Finally, he should instruct members of his cabinet to participate in the various ASEAN ministerial meetings that take place annually, including defense, economics (trade), foreign affairs, health, education, and energy, to name some key channels. They should be instructed to coordinate with counterparts from ASEAN and the members of the EAS to provide recommendations for the president to use when he participates in the next summit in Myanmar in 2014.
Malaysia is a strategic partner: a vibrant, multi-ethnic democracy that is a key voice within ASEAN, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and other forums. Malaysia and the United States have seen their bilateral relationship develop in recent years through economic and political cooperation. Trade between the two countries reached $40 billion last year, while U.S. investment in Malaysia topped $10 billion. Malaysia is also partner in the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, an economic pillar the Obama administration’s policy of rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific. A presidential visit would have affirmed the importance of Malaysia in that effort.
In the absence of the president, Kerry, Pritzker, and Froman should make the most of their visit. This should include working to ensure the support of the Malaysian government on TPP completion, and pursuing initiatives such as a business leader dialogue and a bilateral dialogue on strategic energy planning. Domestic politics has recently hindered Malaysia’s advances toward completing the TPP. Kerry should engage in public diplomacy and speak directly to civil society to quell fears about the agreement.
Cancelling the visit to Malaysia was arguably an imperative given the bitter partisanship and dysfunctional situation in the U.S. Congress. But President Obama should encourage his cabinet secretaries to be proactive and creative when they visit Kuala Lumpur next week. Successful efforts on that front could help energize the bilateral relationship and make the most of a missed opportunity.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.