Obama to set aside decades of uneasy ties with Malaysian visit

As first US president to visit since 1966, he aims to set aside tensions, play up its democracy and moderation and seek common cause on China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 10:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014, 5:06pm


Barack Obama will this weekend become the first US president in nearly 50 years to visit Malaysia, where he will seek to put decades of uneasy bilateral relations behind him as both nations cast wary eyes on a rising China.

Mindful of America's image problem in the Islamic world, Obama is expected to tout the US friendship with the thriving moderate Muslim nation.

Malaysia is also an important partner in the US "rebalance" of its strategic attention to Asia, where concern is rising over China's territorial assertiveness.

Obama will "highlight the growing strategic and economic relationship" with Malaysia and its "credentials as a moderate, Muslim-majority state and emerging democracy", said Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, meanwhile, will seek to capitalise on Obama's expected praise to counter flagging voter support and global criticism over the handling of the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Obama was five years old the last time a serving US leader visited Malaysia. Lyndon Johnson went in 1966 to rally support for the US war in Vietnam.

Tension followed during the 1981-2003 tenure of authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad, a harsh critic of US policies.

But ties - especially trade - remained solid, and the more Western-oriented Najib has sought even closer relations.

US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes this week expressed hope that the visit would "elevate US-Malaysian relations to a new stage".

Obama postponed a visit last year to deal with the US government shutdown.

Underlining the need for a reintroduction after nearly a half-century, Malaysia is the only stop on Obama's Asian swing to include a "town-hall meeting". He also visits close allies Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.

China will loom large. It is Malaysia's top trade partner and Najib has played down their rival maritime claims. But Malaysian anxieties have grown, particularly after China held naval exercises in disputed waters last year, and the US and Malaysia have moved recently to improve defence ties.

Chinese criticism over MH370 has also left a bitter aftertaste.

"[Najib's government] obviously hopes that Obama's star effect can rub off on its flagging popularity," said Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"And Malaysia can continue to counterbalance China with the US in its foreign policy - siding with China economically but with the US on security."

Differences remain, though.

The economic component of Obama's "rebalance" rests largely on his vision of a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a region-wide trade liberalisation pact bedevilled by rocky negotiations with partners. Malaysia has resisted free-market reforms that clash with its controversial policies reserving economic advantages for majority ethnic Malays.

Obama may also face pressure to address uncomfortable human rights, democracy and religion issues in Malaysia.