A foundation for further progress

26 April, 2014
As appeared in TheStar.com.my

There is still a great need to instil better mutual understanding of the values, aspirations and hopes of both Americans and Malaysians.

PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s visit to Malaysia, the first by a sitting US President since 1966, will strengthen ties and set the foundation for further advances towards the two nations’ shared objectives.

Malaysia is an important partner for America: its role in the global economy is outsized for a population of about 30 million and a purchasing power parity gross domestic ­product of about US$500bil (RM1.65 trillion).

Malaysia is the fourth most trade-dependent country in the world. It is a key member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

The President and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak enjoy good chemistry in their personal relationship and Obama is hugely popular in Malaysia.

His visit, making good a promise when last October’s had to be put off because of the debt-ceiling crisis, represents an opportunity to deepen cooperative efforts based on mutual understanding and mutual goodwill.

Following stops in North-East Asia, Obama will be able to address US interests in South-East Asia and to focus attention on the role Malaysia plays in the region to advance market-oriented economic development and promote progress towards transparent and accountable governance.

America’s commitment to the security, peace, and prosperity of the region will no doubt be a topic for the two leaders’ discussions, providing Obama the chance to put regional maritime disputes in context.

US support for peaceful resolution of such disputes will be welcome in the region, including the American vow to see countries abide by international law in state conduct and for dispute resolution.

American ratification of the Law of the Sea would be a positive step in this regard, and US support for confidence-building measures as well as Asean’s deliberation with China of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea would likewise send positive signals to a region concerned about potential escalation of friction among claimants.

This is an especially relevant factor in light of Malaysia taking the chair of Asean next year.

The MH370 tragedy brings to the fore the critical nature of regional cooperation on search and rescue as well as joint humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

Ideally, the two leaders will be able to announce support for renewed vigour in such regional integration on the security side to match positive achievements on the path towards economic integration of diverse states in both North-East and South-East Asia.

America’s strong contributions to the search for the missing airliner might also presage discussion of additional steps the United States could take to assist Malaysia in coping with a range of crises, particularly through the already robust law enforcement relationships between the two countries.

Bilaterally, there are many areas of great potential to discuss. Healthy trade and investment between the nations will no doubt be a highlight of the visit.

We support the successful conclusion of Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. That will necessarily have to take into account domestic priorities of both countries, but we believe there is an agreement to be had that advances the broader interests of both the Malaysian and the American people. Both countries depend on a healthy and expanding global ­trading system.

Demographics in Asia and America help drive the two together. Young entrepreneurs on both sides of the Pacific demonstrate clearly that Americans and Malaysians have much more that unites than divides them.

Expansion of people-to-people ties is another way for both countries to contribute to each other’s success.

In that context, we look forward to the day when the requirement for Malaysians to obtain visas to visit the United States can be lifted.

An announcement during the President’s visit to start the process would receive Malaysian popular acclaim.

Ultimately, while governments must set the frame of reference, it is our people who will demonstrate the resolve and enthusiasm to sustain positive momentum in our relationship.

There is still a great need to instil better mutual understanding of the values, aspirations and hopes of both peoples. Our countries have developed a mature and strategic outlook that encompasses a wide range of opinion in civil society on both sides.

That is an accomplishment the two leaders, looking back to a previous era and forward towards an even more promising future, can celebrate.