President Barack Obama’s trip to Malaysia in late April will be the first visit of a sitting U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson traveled to Kuala Lumpur in 1966. Almost five decades later, Obama’s visit presents an opportunity that should not be squandered by focusing on specific issues related to Malaysia’s internal politics and democratic development. Instead, the moment should be used to cement recent positive developments in U.S.-Malaysia bilateral relations and set the tone for this relationship in the decades ahead.

To realize this aim, the two countries should issue a joint statement during Obama’s visit that prioritizes establishing a strategic relationship between the United States and Malaysia. The statement should also task high-level officials from both countries with fleshing out an agenda and developing a road map for future bilateral discussions and strategic cooperation.

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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Obama’s Asia trip will also include stops in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. These three countries are long-standing allies of the United States, and Washington is seeking to strengthen these bilateral relationships and enhance the regional orientations of these respective alliances. Consequently, the president has a reasonably well-defined agenda for discussion with these countries. That is not the case with Malaysia, which is not a U.S. ally.

In terms of its size and regional importance, Malaysia may be a small potato in comparison with neighboring Indonesia, but it is growing in both categories. It is an influential member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a 56-state body promoting Muslim solidarity in economic, social, and political matters. It is also a successful, moderately Islamic, multicultural developing country.

These attributes enable Malaysia to support U.S. ambitions and policies, especially in Southeast Asia and the Islamic world. But first, the United States must strengthen bilateral relations with Kuala Lumpur. There is a pressing need to broaden and deepen the U.S. relationship with Malaysia to overcome a trust deficit that exists between the publics and the media of the two countries as well as a majority of the political leaders.

The trust deficit stems from the fact that U.S.-Malaysia relations have not always been cordial. Although economic and defense ties were strong, the political relationship was characterized by deep mistrust and animosity, especially on the part of Malaysia, during the tenure of Mahathir Mohamed as prime minister (1981–2003). Harboring strong anti-Western tendencies, Mahathir and, more broadly, the Malaysian public viewed the United States as an overbearing country ready to interfere in Malaysia’s internal affairs and to rig the international system in Washington’s favor—to the disadvantage of developing countries like Malaysia.

Led by Mahathir, Malaysians also looked unfavorably upon Washington’s approach to the 1997–1999 Asian financial crisis. Malaysians take pride in how their country successfully negotiated the financial crisis while disregarding the advice of the IMF and the United States.

In addition, the role played by the United States during the Cold War in Southeast Asia is generally viewed in Malaysian policy circles as having been detrimental to regional security and stability. Kuala Lumpur was a lead initiator and strong supporter of Southeast Asian neutrality in the Cold War. And a broad segment of the Malaysian public views the United States as deeply biased in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But after twenty-two frosty years, bilateral relations between the United States and Malaysia began to thaw under then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (2003–2009), and the two countries witnessed a dramatic turnaround in the political domain when Najib Razak became prime minister in 2009. That shift led U.S. State Department officials to term contemporary U.S.-Malaysia relations the best ever.

Much of the responsibility for the turnaround may be attributed to Najib, who previously served as Malaysia’s defense minister. Improving relations with the United States was one of his key goals. He saw improved U.S.-Malaysia ties as necessary not only for the security and prosperity of Malaysia but also to strengthen his own political standing at home.

The shift was also due in part to a change in U.S. perceptions, with Washington coming to see Malaysia as a moderately Islamic and multicultural country that could serve as a model for other majority-Muslim states.

There is good chemistry between Obama and Najib that has facilitated cooperation between the two countries. Malaysia has responded well to several of the United States’ specific concerns, including issues relating to Iran, nuclear security, and sea and air access to U.S. forces. And Washington has supported Malaysia without appearing to be overbearing. Most recently, it backed Kuala Lumpur’s efforts in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, first in the South China Sea and later in the southern Indian Ocean.

The improvement in bilateral relations, however, has not trickled down to all ministries and agencies in Malaysia, including the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or to the Malaysian public and the media, where a skeptical view of the United States still predominates. For its part, the U.S. body politic lacks knowledge of Malaysia, and American media appears to take a stridently negative view of the country, as was evident recently during the alleged mishandling of the search for flight MH 370.

Obama has the opportunity to address some of these lingering challenges. He should seize the moment during his forthcoming visit to set a positive tone for the future of the U.S.-Malaysia relationship. The goal should be to broaden and deepen the turnaround in bilateral relations so that leadership change in both countries, especially Malaysia, will not return the relationship to a state of misunderstanding and acrimony.

To that end, focusing on specific issues like democratic development, human rights, internal security legislation, and independence of the judiciary, an approach advocated by many quarters in the United States, would be a mistake. That strategy would only reinforce Malaysians’ earlier perception of an overbearing United States.

Instead, the visit should be seen as a defining moment to develop the basis for a long-term strategic relationship between the two countries. It is a golden opportunity to demonstrate firm American support for Malaysia’s long-term goals, the attainment of which will also help address issues of concern to the United States. In that context, Obama should strongly support Malaysia’s goal of becoming a developed country by 2020 and its quest to play the role of a middle power in Southeast Asia and, more broadly, in Asia and the world. There is a consensus in Malaysia on these aims. The country’s lead role in brokering a peaceful settlement between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an insurgent group in the Philippines, and the government in Manila is a demonstration of the middle-power role that Malaysia can play.

Although the heavy lifting in attaining these goals lies with Malaysia, U.S. support would be seen in a positive light. When appropriate, the United States can also pave the way for Malaysia to join the group of developed countries.

In addition, Washington should voice strong support for Kuala Lumpur’s leadership of the Global Movement of Moderates, an organization that seeks to enshrine moderation as a key principle in domestic politics and international relations. The movement further enhances Malaysia’s ability to serve as a model modern, moderate Islamic country that is also multicultural. And in the economic domain, Malaysia’s leading role in the development of Islamic finance should be appreciated and supported.

The visit also provides an opportunity for Obama to address what could be potential areas of tension in the bilateral relationship. On the security front, for example, Malaysia values American military presence and assistance, especially given Kuala Lumpur’s growing apprehension regarding Beijing. But Malaysia has little appetite for confronting China. There is widespread concern in Kuala Lumpur that siding with a vigorous United States may lead to confrontation with China.

For this reason, Obama should reiterate U.S. support for ASEAN’s commitment to engaging all major powers and make abundantly clear that America’s Asia policy is not designed to confront or contain China. The visit may also be an excellent opportunity to advocate the development of a rule-based order and the peaceful settlement of disputes in Southeast Asia, with ASEAN playing the lead role. Although Malaysia will be one of two Southeast Asian stops during the visit, it will be the most appropriate place to voice strong American support for ASEAN and for peace, stability, and prosperity in Southeast Asia.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed trade agreement involving the United States and several Asia-Pacific nations, may be another troubling issue that Obama could address. Several important quarters in Malaysia have raised concerns, if not outright opposition, to the proposed partnership. Najib has invested heavily in TPP negotiations, but he has had to backtrack. Acknowledging the opposing voices, Najib has stated that any final pact would have to be approved by the parliament.

The absence of trade-promotion authority—which would give the U.S. president the right to negotiate trade deals that Congress could approve or disapprove but not amend—may reduce the salience of the issue. At the same time, however, it may raise credibility and reliability concerns. The president should take the opportunity of his Malaysia visit to assert that the TPP is intended to promote free and transparent trade that is vital for the well-being of all countries in the Asia-Pacific region. And although the TPP may or may not come to pass, future attention should be devoted to the development of a robust, open, and transparent trading system that would benefit all countries and help Malaysia become a high-income economy.

The highlight of Obama’s visit should be the joint statement that targets the development of a strategic relationship between the two countries spanning political, economic, security, and sociocultural domains and establishes high-level working groups to address specific issues of concern and cooperation in the development of that relationship. This statement will ensure the visit has a lasting impact. Malaysia will be receptive to a strategic arrangement that maximizes cooperation on the basis of comparative advantages as long as that relationship does not undermine or lead to confrontation with other important countries.