Barack Obama is set to become the first sitting U.S. president in nearly 50 years to visit Malaysia, but the plans are now complicated by the international uproar over the nation’s uneven response to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
The long-planned trip, part of a week-long Asia swing in late April, is aimed at broadening U.S. ties with a country that Obama praised last fall as an emerging economic hub and a tolerant majority-Muslim nation.
But then came Flight MH370, which appeared to drop off the face of the Earth on March 8 and has not been located despite an intense multinational hunt. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has delivered incomplete and conflicting information during the search and, at times, has rebuffed U.S. offers of help.
For a White House eager to highlight shared values with a country that has long viewed the United States skeptically, the crisis has instead highlighted the vast differences between the nations. The airline debacle also comes on the heels of a decision two weeks ago by a Malaysian court to overturn the acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges and return him to jail, a decision decried by human rights advocates.
“The Malaysian government has been seen as less than ready for prime time on the world stage,” said James R. Keith, who served as U.S. ambassador to Malaysia from 2007 to 2010. “The thoughtful conclusion to draw from that is that the ruling coalition hasn’t really been tested by the give-and-take of democratic politics. And the Malaysian Air issue stands as a shorthand or symbol for the lack of maturity of civil society in Malaysia and the lack of accountability and transparency of the government.”
White House officials reject that analysis, contending that the cooperation between the United States and Malaysia during a crisis with little precedent has provided new opportunities to develop and strengthen partnerships in the region. Obama is also scheduled to visit U.S. allies Japan, South Korea and the Philippines during the trip.
The White House has struck a measured and supportive tone, in stark contrast to Beijing’s strident criticism. In an interview with a Fox affiliate in Dallas on Wednesday, Obama said the administration has “put every resource we have available at the disposal of the search process. We are working in close cooperation with the Malaysian government.
“Part of the challenge is when you have a lot of unanswered questions, people start speculating and that gets reported as news,” Obama said. “This is a tough situation.”
Obama was scheduled to visit Malaysia last fall during a trip to four Southeast Asian nations, including delivering remarks at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kuala Lumpur. The gathering was part of an annual program that Obama launched during a speech in Cairo in 2009 aimed at encouraging Muslims to engage in the global economy.
But the president canceled his trip to the region in the midst of the 16-day partial federal government shutdown during his budget fight with Congress. In a video message for the summit, Obama hailed Malaysia’s “dynamic economy” as an “engine for regional prosperity” and held up the country’s “diversity, tolerance and progress as a model to other countries.”
The cancellation, which also meant pulling out of a pair of regional economic and security summits in neighboring countries, was viewed as a major setback for the administration’s attempt to reorient its foreign policy focus, away from the Middle East and toward Asia. The administration views Southeast Asia’s fast-growing economy and nascent democratic values as opportunities for the United States to gain influence in the face of a rising China.
The U.S. relationship with Malaysia — which was already distrustful — soured further during the George W. Bush administration’s war on terror, which many in the country viewed as anti-Muslim. Although Malaysia has a nominal democracy, it has been ruled by the same party for six decades, and its leaders have often used anti-American rhetoric to whip up nationalist fervor and consolidate power.
Najib, who became prime minister in early 2009 around the time that Obama entered the White House, took a more moderate approach. He met privately with Obama in Washington in April 2010 while world leaders were in town for a nuclear summit. Najib has supported free-market economic policies and nonproliferation and counterterrorism efforts.
“The overriding and dominant image and narrative of this trip is embracing Malaysia at a time in which it is stepping up and modernizing,” said a senior Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s visit.
“Malaysia has done a better job boosting its public image in Washington, and Obama wants to pay that back a little bit,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But it’s a fine balance. The U.S. is not particularly popular in Malaysia. Obama will go there and show he appreciates the relationship, but at the same time he cannot be too lavishing.”
Last fall, the administration had hoped to focus its message on the economic partnerships between Malaysia and the United States. But even before Flight MH370 went missing, there were new complications: Congressional Democrats have refused to support Obama’s push to win expedited trade deal authority in hopes of finalizing negotiations on a 12-nation pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a linchpin of the administration’s Asia policy push.
With that pact in doubt, Obama’s agenda could be overshadowed by security concerns related to Flight MH370 and human rights questions raised in the case of Anwar, the opposition leader.
In the meantime, Beijing has flexed its military might to challenge fishing and shipping lanes in the South China Sea. Analysts said the Chinese criticism over the airline crisis could inflame regional tensions and cause the Obama administration further headaches.
“There were a lot of Chinese on that plane. And there’s a national angst that feeds into Beijing’s narrative that sees Southeast Asia as weak and incapable, and that it’s part of China’s responsibility,” said Ernest Bower, Southeast Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s exactly not the kind of stand we want to see from China.”