The Obama administration is always ready to cooperate with other countries in terms of boosting trade, improving regional security and improving ties.
BARACK Obama’s story so far has been a litany of “firsts”. The first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review became the first African-American President of the United States and declared himself its first “Pacific President”.
Today, he becomes the first US president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon B. Johnson, as part of a four-nation Asian tour. Despite his demanding schedule, the President made time to answer e-mailed questions from The Star about relations with Malaysia and its Prime Minister, and his goals for this visit.
Q: You will be the first President of the United States to visit Malaysia since Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit in 1966. Malaysia had declared its state of Emergency over in 1960 and Johnson said the US could learn from Malaysia’s achievements during its “struggle in Vietnam”. How would you characterise the bilateral relationship now and what are the messages you want to deliver?
A: I’m proud to be making the first visit to Malaysia by an American president in nearly 50 years. This reflects the renewed leadership role that the US is playing in the Asia Pacific.
Since I took office, I have made expanding our ties with the nations and peoples of South-East Asia a centrepiece of that strategy. With hundreds of millions of people, growing economies and strategic waterways, South-East Asia is increasingly important to the security and prosperity of not only the US, but the world. And in this region, Malaysia plays a central role that will only continue to grow over time.
I’m coming to Malaysia in order to continue the transformation of the relationship between our two countries. Under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s leadership, Malaysia has reached out to forge closer ties with the US, and at my direction, my administration has been working to deepen our cooperation.
Today, our two nations are working more closely together across a whole range of areas. The United States is the top investor in Malaysia, and US exports to Malaysia also support growth for America.
We’re partnering to promote maritime security and regional stability. We’re working to make progress toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to boost trade. I see my visit as an opportunity to formalise a comprehensive partnership, and lay the foundation for even closer ties for years to come.
My main message is that the US welcomes Malaysia’s growing contributions to regional security and prosperity. And even as we deepen our cooperation with the Malaysian government, we’re looking to expand our engagement with the Malaysian people – including the civil society groups and young people who are vital to the future of this country and the region.
Around the world, we’ve seen that countries that welcome the contributions, and uphold the human rights, of all their citizens regardless of their political affiliation, ethnicity, race or religion are ultimately more prosperous and more successful. In this sense, Malaysia’s incredible diversity should be a source of strength.
Q: You have established a good personal relationship with Prime Minister Najib. For example, as a result of a conversation you both had, the first batch of Fulbright English Teacher Assistants was sent to Malaysia in 2012. What commitments and proposals will you bring on this visit and what are America’s numerical targets for bilateral relations over the next 10 years?
A: I was pleased to welcome Prime Minister Najib to Washington for our first Nuclear Security Summit four years ago, as well as to my home state of Hawaii for the Apec summit, and we’ve worked together at a number of regional summits. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to work with the Prime Minister, who I’ve found to be a good partner and personally committed to beginning a new era of cooperation between our countries.
In particular, I commend Prime Minister Najib for his efforts to make the Malaysian economy more dynamic and competitive, including his support for young entrepreneurs.
I’m personally grateful to the prime minister and Malaysia for hosting last year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit, an initiative I started and which remains close to my heart.
At our meeting in September 2010 in New York during the United Nations General Assembly, the Prime Minister and I discussed creating a programme similar to the Peace Corps that would bring Americans to Malaysia to help teach English. So we created the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants programme.
Over the last two years, nearly 200 Americans have come to Malaysia. They haven’t just taught English, they’ve forged deep friendships with their students, their families and their communities. And I hope even more Americans will come in the future because these are the kind of partnerships that will bind our two countries for many decades.
Looking ahead, I think a deeper partnership between the United States and Malaysia will mean greater security and prosperity for both our nations. With more trade and investment, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we can create more jobs for our people and make our countries more competitive in the global economy.
With our growing security cooperation, we can promote regional stability, including freedom of navigation in critical waterways. We can stand together to ensure that nations in the region play by the same rules and that disputes are resolved peacefully, through dialogue. And I look forward to launching a new initiative while I’m in Malaysia which will build connections between the United States and young leaders across Malaysia and all Asean countries – because the future of this region will ultimately be determined by its remarkable young people.
Q: Your aim is to transform the TPP into a 21st-century trade agreement, but can this be achieved without including China and Indonesia? Has the process bogged down and are US priorities shifting to a possible Trans-Atlantic free trade agreement with the European Union?
A: I’m committed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it will open more markets to our goods, boost our exports and support jobs and economic growth not only in the United States and Malaysia, but across the region. An agreement this big involving 12 nations and more than 40% of global trade isn’t easy.
It requires important and sometimes difficult decisions, as well as a commitment by every TPP country, including Malaysia, to meet its high standards. I look forward to discussing the TPP with Prime Minister Najib, and I continue to believe we can get this done.
China and Indonesia are not currently part of TPP. But we’ve made it clear that TPP is ultimately open to any regional economy that is ready to meet the agreement’s high standards.
This means reducing barriers to trade and investment, and ensuring strong protections for labour and the environment, a fair playing field for our companies when they have to compete against state-owned enterprises, and strong protections of our intellectual property. We want trade to be free and fair and that means every country has to play by the same rules.
My interest in forging a new trade and investment partnership with the EU in no way detracts from my determination to complete the TPP and to forge deeper economic ties with the Asia Pacific. I reject the kind of zero-sum thinking that says deeper ties with one region come at the expense of our ties with another region.
That’s not how our interconnected world works. That’s not how our global economy works.
The US can and will continue to have extraordinary economic ties with both the Asia Pacific and Europe. In fact, these trade pacts reinforce each other by reaffirming America’s place as the engine of the global economy.
Q: The US played a key role in the search operations for MH370. Inmarsat spokesman Chris McLaughlin noted that after the sinking of the Titanic, the Safety of Lives at Sea law was passed. He hoped for a similar mandate after the MH370 tragedy, that all aircraft should be constantly tracked. Please comment.
A: My visit to Malaysia will be an opportunity for me to convey the deepest sympathies of the American people to all those affected by the loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of all the passengers and crew. This was a terrible tragedy that has touched people across this region and around the world.
As a friend and partner of Malaysia, the US was one of the first countries to join in the search for the missing plane. US Navy ships, aircraft and personnel remain on the scene, assisting in the search. Our FBI is working closely with Malaysia on the investigation into what caused the aircraft to disappear. And we’ll continue to offer our support and assistance as the search and investigation continue.
Any time there is a tragedy like this we ought to also reflect on what can be done going forward to prevent something similar from happening again. That discussion has begun, in Malaysia and around the world, and we’ll see what improvements might be recommended to continue improving aviation security.
One thing is already clear, however, is that large international efforts like this search operation benefit from existing partnerships among nations. The more we build habits of cooperation, and are prepared to work together, the more ready we’ll be in times of disaster or crisis.