President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Kuala Lumpur on Oct 11 to attend the Fourth Global Entrepreneurship Conference after attending the Asean summit in Brunei. This is the first visit of a sitting US president to Malaysia after 47 years. President Lyndon Johnson visited Malaysia in 1966.

The forthcoming Obama visit should be viewed as a golden opportunity to consolidate recent gains and make further strides in Malaysia-US bilateral relations, as well as to strengthen American engagement in Southeast Asia to advance the cause of peace, security and prosperity in the region.

Muthiah Alagappa
Alagappa, formerly a nonresident senior fellow in the Asia Program, was the first holder of the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in international studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His research focuses primarily on Asian security, the political legitimacy of governments, civil society and political change, and the political role of the military in Asia.
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Despite the rise of new powers, especially China, the US remains the world’s only superpower with unparalleled infl uence at the global level and in all regions of the world. Furthermore, despite its share of problems and weaknesses, the US remains a model state to be emulated in several areas.

The US is an indispensable state in global governance as well as for peace, security, stability and prosperity in nearly all regions, including Asia. Many countries in Asia, including rising powers, are allies of, aligned with or seek to forge strong bilateral relationships with the US.

The Asian list includes Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, India and Pakistan. Even countries like Myanmar and Vietnam, which suffered deeply as a consequence of earlier US policies and which continue to have substantial differences with Washington on some key issues, are in the process of forging stronger ties with the country.

Despite, and in some ways because of, its growing prowess, Beijing too is engaged in a strategic dialogue with Washington. Likewise, New Delhi sees advantages in developing strong ties with Washington. In our own region, Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world and a leading proponent of non-alignment, is forging a comprehensive partnership with the US.

All these countries are not without serious dif erences with the US, but they also share and seek common ground. No major power is faultless. The US has its share of flaws, problems and weaknesses. At the same time, one cannot deny that much can be gained on the basis of strong relations with that country. The US does not have to be embraced lock, stock and barrel. Ties can and should be strengthened with prudential attention to national interests.

In the 21st century, Malaysia should seek to forge dynamic strategic relationships with the US and several other countries, including China, India and Japan. Although Malaysia should hold fi rm to the principle of no permanent military alliances or alignments, that should not prevent us from developing strong strategic relationships with all powers that matter substantively to Malaysia’s security, prosperity and well-being.

Forging a strategic relationship with all major powers, including the US, is testimony to our maturity as a country that is ready to do the necessary heavy lifting to advance national goals and aspirations in a context of fundamental political, economic and socio-cultural change in the domestic and international environments. Our foreign policy has to be thought anew, but that is a topic for another column.

We should not let past suspicions, biases, distrust, rhetoric and domestic political considerations stand in the way of better relations with the world’s predominant power. The ongoing negotiation of a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) should not become another bogeyman for anti-Americanism.

If Malaysia is to become globally competitive, as envisioned in Wawasan 2020, it must be part of the negotiating process for important free trade arrangements, including the TPPA. When realised, the TPPA market will be about one-third the size of the global market. National interests must be uppermost in negotiating the deal although some trade-of will be inevitable. No one gets 100% in any trading arrangement.

Malaysia’s largely pro-Western foreign policy focused on national survival under our able fi rst prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, which was succeeded by a more non-aligned regional orientation under succeeding prime ministers Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Hussein Onn.

Economic development was the key orientation under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, but he also had a strong anti-Western and especially anti-American streak. He courted Western business and bilateral relations with the US, but at the bureaucratic level remained relatively steady (in fact, quite strong in the defence domain).

However, his anti-American rhetoric soured Malaysia’s political and strategic relations with the US. That, along with perceptions of unfairness in US policy towards the Middle East, especially on the Palestinian issue, coloured Malaysian public perception of the US.

After being in the political doldrums during the Mahathir era, Malaysia-US bilateral relations took a dramatic upturn after Datuk Seri Najib Razak became prime minister. He made a determined effort to foster better relations with the US as well as with India, China and Japan.

Appointing a close political confi dant as the Malaysian ambassador to the US, Najib reversed lacklustre relations with that country and stemmed the downward drift in bilateral relations. Najib is respected and has good chemistry with Barack Obama (as well as other leaders like Manmohan Singh, Shinzo Abe and the Chinese leadership).

However, Najib’s major policy initiative does not appear to have percolated to several ministries and the public at large, which still appears to hold a stereotypical suspicious image of the US. Even the Ministry of Foreign Af airs seems slow in reshaping its view of the US. As in most foreign ministries, bureaucratic conservatism may underlie the reluctance to fully embrace the dramatic shift in foreign policy.

It is time to rethink our foreign policy so that it can serve the country well in the 21st century. Insofar as bilateral relations with the US are concerned, the goal should be to forge a strategic relationship with that country. The Obama visit presents a golden opportunity to articulate a joint vision that consolidates recent gains and outlines the basis for a strategic relationship between the two countries.

That joint vision statement should set out common values, goals and a basis for a strategic relationship, as well as identify strategies and practical measures. A senior and capable Malaysian should be tasked to work full time in drafting the vision statement, in consultation with relevant key ministries as well as the US State Department and US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

The opportunity should not be missed due to inadvertence, an unhealthy past, domestic politics linked to the upcoming Umno general assembly, or weaknesses in government delivery mechanisms, including at the Ministry of Foreign Af airs. National interest should be the uppermost concern. The visit should also be viewed as an occasion to discuss and turn around public perception and attitudes toward the US.

Malaysia is not a small country. By 2020, Malaysia’s GDP is estimated to reach RM920 billion (in 1990 ringgit terms) and by 2030, it will have a population of 38 million people. Malaysia is a moderate Muslim-majority, multicultural nation and a democratic state with strong credentials in economic development. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it is on track to become a fully developed country in all its dimensions with strong middle power attributes.

Forging strategic relationships with all important countries, including the US, demonstrates prudence and maturity in advancing our national goals and international aspirations in a changing world. It will highly profile Malaysia and transform its international image and role in regional and global affairs.

This article was originally published in the Edge, Malaysia.