KUALA LUMPUR – Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s visit to the White House next week is a “feat within the context of the bilateral relationship” between Malaysia and the United States.
The Diplomat associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran, in a piece published in the magazine’s website yesterday, said this was especially so since the initial forecast for US-Malaysia relations under President Donald Trump seemed to be gloomy, with Malaysian policymakers, like their regional counterparts, worrying about the implications of the so-called America First policy.
Such a policy, he said, appeared to be so with the nixing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the release of a trade hit-list, the questioning of the One China policy and the Trump travel ban.
“Yet as the Trump administration’s Asia policy began to take shape, convergence, as it often does, became clearer in certain areas like North Korea, eventually paving the way for Najib’s White House visit.
“There is no doubt that the visit itself is a feat within the context of the bilateral relationship.
“The last time Malaysia was granted a White House visit was in 2004 under former premier (Tun) Abdullah (Ahmad) Badawi, and this is Najib’s first-ever White House visit since coming to power nearly a decade ago,” said Prashanth, who writes mostly on Southeast Asia, Asian security affairs and US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.
He said the fact that Najib was just the second Southeast Asian leader to visit the Trump White House, after Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, this was partly a consequence of scheduling changes.
“Officials from both sides also had to do a lot of substantive work to get the visit through so early on in the Trump presidency, and so quickly as well,” he said.
Prashanth said while both sides were expected to make some headline-worthy progress in the heavily scrutinised visit, the true test for US-Malaysia relations lay less in the successful conduct of this interaction and more in the ability of both sides to manage the challenges likely to relations further down the line.
“For all the focus on Najib himself, the reality is that the United States and Malaysia have successfully cooperated on a range of issues under six prime ministers since the Southeast Asian state’s independence despite disagreements on matters such as economic policy, human rights and US foreign policy in the Middle East.”
Prashanth said even though bilateral ties had hit new heights under former president Barack Obama — with both sides elevating ties to the level of a comprehensive partnership and Malaysia becoming a member of key US-led initiatives, be it the TPP or the Global Coalition to Counter Islamic State — issues like human trafficking continued to pose complications for ties.
For Najib’s visit, he said, the official agenda itself will be presented as wide-ranging, in line with the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties as well as the realities of the comprehensive partnership itself.
Top agenda items would include North Korea, counter-terrorism, maritime security, expected defence deals, but the timing of the visit, a day after the anniversary of the Sept 11 attacks, as well as Najib’s more private engagements, will make the visit seem “a bit security-heavy”.
But, Prashanth said the progress made in bilateral ties ought not to be dismissed, particularly at the beginning of a new US administration.
Much, he said, would rely on the ability of both sides to manage key challenges to relations further down the line.