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Obama in Malaysia: more than the TPP

17 Apr Obama in Malaysia: more than the TPP

When US President Barack Obama touches down in Kuala Lumpur next week, it will be the first time since 1966 that a sitting US president has visited Malaysia. It replaces a planned visit from last October, which was cancelled because Mr Obama was obliged to remain in Washington to deal with the US government shutdown.

Unfortunately, Mr Obama’s visit looks set to be overshadowed again by more pressing events: the new developments of pro-Russia separatism in eastern Ukraine, as well as revelations of a new chemical attack in the long-drawn Syrian conflict.

Moreover, Mr Obama has added visits to Japan and South Korea on this Asian trip, to help soothe tensions between the US’s two major Asian allies. He will also visit the Philippines, where he is expected to sign an important agreement on US-Philippines defence cooperation, perhaps the clearest sign of a US “rebalancing” to Asia in recent years.

In Kuala Lumpur, Mr Obama will most likely discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Malaysian leaders. But with the lack of support for the TPP in the US Congress and the Malaysian government, no significant developments are expected to emerge from the President’s visit.

Instead, Mr Obama will be watched on how he responds to issues in Malaysian politics, particularly the recent re-conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges. In 1998, when then Vice-President Al Gore spoke in support of Mr Anwar and the Reformasi movement during a visit to Malaysia for an APEC summit, he was firmly rebuked by Malaysian ministers. That visit quickly turned sour, and foreign leaders in town for the APEC summit distanced themselves from Mr Gore’s stance. It is unclear if Mr Obama is prepared to repeat this, or if he would even meet Mr Anwar.

Compared to neighbouring Singapore and Thailand, the US’s relationship with Malaysia has lagged behind, due mainly to the acrimony and scepticism shown towards the superpower during Mahathir Mohamad’s premiership. Two prime ministers later, Malaysia now seems much more welcoming of the US. But warmer ties perhaps also come at a time when Malaysia is looking to balance China’s growing influence in the region – not least as manifested by incidents surrounding the South China Sea.


Obama To Push For Closer Ties With Malaysia, Asean During Visit [Bernama, 16 April 2014]

Obama’s Upcoming Trip to Malaysia: Going to Be Prickly and Tough [The Diplomat, 29 March 2014]