Obama faces tough sell during April visit to KL

US President Barack Obama will travel to Malaysia in April seeking to regain American influence in South-east Asia's third-biggest economy at a time when concerns are rising in the region about the growing assertiveness of China, Asia's dominant power.

The first American leader to travel here since the late Lyndon B. Johnson's visit in 1966, Mr Obama will be received by Prime Minister Najib Razak, regarded as the friendliest Malaysian leader the United States has had in more than three decades.

Still, many regard it as not an easy sell.

Malaysia was the first ASEAN state to recognise China, in 1974, and since then trade and economic ties have ballooned. China today is Malaysia's top trading partner and analysts say that even as it has conflicting claims in the South China Sea, Kuala Lumpur has noticeably soft-pedalled the dispute, unlike other ASEAN states such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

"There are limits to how far the (US-Malaysia) relationship can go, but my sense is that Najib wants to gradually take it as far as he can," said Mr Shariman Lockman, senior analyst at Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

"US policies in the Middle East have contributed to some antipathy, especially among Malaysia's Malay-Muslim majority."

It is unclear how much of a charm offensive Mr Obama intends to launch here, but analysts say the rare visit is unlikely to change Malaysia's increasingly close relationship with China.

While recent incursions into Malaysian waters by Chinese navy vessels have raised eyebrows, the view here is that economic and trade priorities will take precedence.

The most recent incident occurred on Jan 26 when three Chinese ships reportedly patrolled James Shoal, an area also claimed by Malaysia.

Beijing regards James Shoal, which lies about 80km off Sarawak and 1,800km from the Chinese mainland, as the southernmost part of its territory. Malaysia had protested against a similar incursion last March.

Malaysia is one of six claimants to land features in the South China Sea, which is claimed by China almost in its entirety.

Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar later said the Chinese exercise in January took place 1,000 nautical miles away from Malaysia's 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zone. He also said Malaysia and the US had been informed beforehand.

Mr Shariman said Malaysia will continue to try to avoid allowing disputes to affect its broader relationship with China as he noted that this year marks the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties.

"As we often like to remind the Chinese (in Malaysia), Malaysia was the first among the original ASEAN member states to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1974," he said.

This is particularly meaningful to Datuk Seri Najib as it was his father, then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, who had initiated the diplomatic overtures to China.

"A visit by the President of the United States is unlikely to do much to change the way Putrajaya relates to Washington and Beijing," Mr Shariman said.

"If you're expecting Malaysia to tilt towards the US just because of Obama's visit, you shouldn't be holding your breath."

Malaysia's caution towards the US has a lot to do with its domestic politics. Mr Shariman noted that Malaysia-US relations have improved dramatically since Mr Najib took office in 2009, especially compared to the Mahathir years. But at the same time, the Prime Minister has to tread carefully as there is a certain level of antipathy towards the US among the Malaysian public.

Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Malaysia, like other South-east Asian nations, traditionally seeks a precarious balance between welcoming a US security presence and engaging China economically.

He said this was evident when the RMN chief made it a point to state that Malaysia and the US had been informed about the Chinese patrol near James Shoal.

"That is significant. It was a subtle signal to China that in this part of the world, there is more than one superpower. Malaysia chose to send this signal in a subtle way," he said.

The visit of Mr Obama, he said, is unlikely to change Malaysia's position regarding China. Unlike China, he said, the US leader will not be coming with offers of big investments.

"Perhaps there will be announcements of training assistance or joint exercises, or an offer to send more English teachers to Malaysia. Realistically, we can't see anything more than that."

On the whole, Malaysia would want to maintain its close economic ties with China as the "numbers are staggering", he added.

Malaysia is China's largest South-east Asian trading partner, with total trade reaching US$88 billion (S$111.4 billion) last year. About a fifth of its exports, including palm oil, went to China in 2012.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping was here last October, the two countries signed a five-year pact aimed at increasing bilateral trade to US$160 billion by 2017.


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

Purchase this article for republication.