Malaysia: Obama visit aims at increasing US influence in the region

Second visit of US President in 50 years

Barack Obama had a three-day visit to Malaysia on April 26, as part of a four country economic and military agreement tour. This is just the second visit of a President of the United States to Malaysia in 50 years. Malaysia was the third country on his schedule after South Korea and Japan. Philippines was the final destination before heading home. This visit is seen as an important event on the agenda of the United States who are trying to revive their economic ties and influence in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific region.

At a joint press conference with the Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, the focus of both leaders was on issues of economic and military security. The Prime Minister made huge effort to impress Obama in his opening speech, highlighting the involvement of Malaysia in chairing the ASEAN meetings and the East Asia Summit next year, as well as Najib’s role in the recently agreed southern Philippines peace deal. The speech was clearly intended to show Malaysia as being pivotal in ensuring economic development and political stability in the region.

Economic ties and military security

Malaysia and the United States trade has averaged nearly US$35 billion annually in the past five years. The United States is also one of the largest investors in Malaysia with about US$1.9 billion, which is said to have created more than 8,000 new jobs last year.

However, much of the benefit of this investment is not felt by ordinary people. There has been a rise of unemployment among youth and stagnating income while inflation has increased. Similar to many developing nations such as Taiwan, there is a huge growth of outsourced and temporary-contracted jobs at the expense of stable permanent employment in Malaysia over the past 5 years.

National debt and subsidy cuts are resulting in an increase in household debt which is ranked as the highest in this region. Subsidy cuts and austerity measures that rose dramatically after the thirteenth general election last year were purposely left out in Prime Minister Najib’s speech. Recently, questions about democracy and the criminal violation of human rights by the Barisan Nasional government have been brought out by some Western media and human rights organisations internationally; but this was not discussed either during Obama’s visit.

The agenda behind the TPPA

Largely affected by resistance to the agreement among ordinary people and the space that exists for the opposition to exploit it, Najib looked rather hesitant in supporting the proposed TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement). However, he announced his commitment to signing the deal as soon as some minor details could be worked out.

Obama stressed that the TPPA agreement will open up the Southeast Asian market, stimulate exports, encourage growth of innovation and help create new jobs. Obama insisted that Najib should rapidly expedite the process of signing the TPPA because this agreement could contribute in bringing Malaysia towards a high-income country by the end of the decade.

TPPA is an effort by the United States to persuade a total of 11 countries, or 40 % of the global economy, to sign a free trade agreement between them. This is mainly to assist the American economy which is experiencing the worst economic crisis in its history since the great depression of 1929. Important meetings and tours have taken place over the years to convince the leaders of the countries involved to sign the agreement. However, the process of negotiations does not run as smoothly as expected as opposition after opposition is being launched by various layers of ordinary people in these countries. Health professionals, environmentalists, trade unions, and others have criticised and protested against the negotiations, in large part because of the proceedings’ secrecy, the agreement’s expansive scope and controversial clauses.

The proposed agreement was a major focus of Obama’s visit to Tokyo, but negotiations have failed so far to overcome the resistance of the Japanese farmers who do not agree to open their markets to imports of rice, chicken and other agricultural goods.

In Malaysia, despite the disapproval from various quarters against the TPPA, the opposition party is not taking a clear position against the government in the deal. The opposition coalition – Pakatan Rakyat – is taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to see if they can get support from the United States for their policies. But their reformist political attitude determines that they will only begin their protest when it is clear that the U.S. will continue to support the government of Najib Razak and ignore them.

Currently, the weak position of Prime Minister Najib and Barisan Nasional provides an opportunity for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat to gain some support from the United States on the issue of democracy. Although the Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim was disappointed for not getting a chance to meet with Obama, he met with the U.S. national security adviser, Susan Rice, to criticise the undemocratic approach of the Najib government, including its biased electoral system. But Pakatan Rakyat did not object to the TPPA and other policies of the USA which can be disastrous for the working and poor people of Malaysia.

Power struggle between United States and China

Although this visit does not include China, Obama’s visit will definitely have an impact on the Chinese leadership who have their own agenda for the region. In a speech in Japan, Obama gave assurances and the commitment of U.S. military support for allies in the region who are involved in territorial disputes with Beijing. In South Korea, he encouraged Chinese leaders to use their influence to control North Korea who are seen as the troublemaker of the region. In a speech in Malaysia, Obama stressed his readiness for cooperation in terms of military security, particularly in the South China Sea. Obama has also signed another military agreement with the Philippines which would most definitely stir a controversy in an already high tension area with both the USA and China pulling in different directions.

Hidden agenda of capitalism

President Lyndon Johnson, during his visit to Malaysia in 1966, underscored America’s agenda at the time in the shadows of anti-communist rhetoric directed at the ‘Soviet’ bloc and China. Ironically today, in view of the friction between the superpowers of the ‘west’ (America, Europe) and the ‘east’ (Russia, China) over issues like the Paracel and Spratly Islands as well as Taiwan etc., Obama’s visit seems to have some parallels with that of the President who came before. Behind the TPPA, talks about WMD proliferation and discussion on the issue of security in the South China Sea is the hidden agenda of a power struggle between the imperialist powers of the world.

All this can be expected as long as imperialism and capitalism dominate. But, new struggles against the hardships imposed by the system will develop. The solidarity of the working people and the oppressed internationally, will mean that, a socialist agenda will be seen as the only way to stop the economic, social and environmental catastrophes created by capitalism and imperialism.

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May 2014