As PM Najib visits Washington, more than just a show

(MMO) – In international politics for the past 60 years, the US has always shown what they think about another country by either withholding or bestowing its diplomatic favours.

Datuk Seri Najib Razak is the second South-east Asian leader (Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was the first) to be invited by President Donald Trump to come and visit him at the White House.

The two leaders are to have a one-to-one meeting at the Oval Office — the president’s private sanctum — before they join the expanded delegation meeting between their two teams.

Najib’s team will consist of International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman and Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Ali Hamsa as well as National Security Council director-general General (rtd) Tan Sri Zulkefli Mohd Zin.

His American host’s team will consist of Cabinet members and senior members of his administration including Vice President Mike Pence, State Secretary Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis, Chief of Staff Gen John Kelly, National Security Advisor Lt General HR McMaster, and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner.

These are Trump’s top people and their presence augurs well for Malaysia as the US President and his administration are extending its full diplomatic favours.

After all, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is only scheduled to visit Trump only in October. The island republic is after all a much closer US ally in the Asean region.

In fact, Malaysian Ambassador to the US, Tan Sri Zulhasnan Rafique, has been to the Oval Room three times since Trump took office in January. Some foreign ambassadors in Washington only get to do it once in their usual three-year term.

But this meeting between Trump and Najib is more than just for show as many critics have claimed back home that this visit was to demonstrate that Malaysia is still favoured by the US.

Zulhasnan said the meeting is substantive as there are a lot of bilateral issues for the two sides to discuss.

“We wish to take the opportunity to discuss cooperation in the field of economy, security, defence, education, counter-terrorism, immigration, science and technology and people-to-people relations,” said Zulhasnan to Malaysian media covering Najib’s visit here.

There are quite a number issues are on the table but it will not be lost to Najib’s team that getting concession is going to be a lot more difficult than diplomatic favours. A lot needs to be done to impress their American to see everything from the Malaysian perspective.

Zulhasnan admits that top of the agenda for the Americans would be the imbalanced trade figures which favours Malaysia which has been listed among the “trade cheats” country by Trump in his America for Americans policy.

“Total trade between Malaysia and the US has increased by 20.3 per cent in the period from January to July this year, totalling RM93.77 billion or US$21.44 billion. During that period, our exports to the US grew by 11.1 per cent, while imports from the US to Malaysia went up by 33.1 per cent

“Meanwhile, cumulatively, US’ investment in Malaysia based on approved projects was valued at US$28.57 billion by December 2016. As of August this year, Malaysia’s cumulative investment in the US was valued at US$14.56 billion,” said Zulhasnan, adding that the trade surplus was definitely was in Malaysia’s favour.

“It’s been like this for more than 20 years but we have to look at this positively,” he explained.

On the part of Malaysia, top of the agenda will be regional security, counter-terrorism and moderation but with the recent events in Myanmar, the Rohingya issue will definitely be raised.

Najib has said yesterday that he would bring it up during his four-eyed meeting with Trump.

Many American companies are making a bee line to invest in Myanmar and putting pressure on them may be more effective than political and diplomatic pressure.

Asked if Malaysia’s close ties with China would be a thorn in the discussion between Trump and Najib, Zulhasnan said this year marked the 60th anniversary of ties between Washington and Kuala Lumpur.

“The relationship is deep and the increasing investments by China will not affect it.

“We expect it to take bilateral relations and cooperation to new heights,” said the Malaysian ambassador.

Najib arrives in Washington tomorrow and is scheduled to deliver two speeches — one at a dinner organised by the US-Asean Business Council and the US Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday and at a luncheon conference organised by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.