When Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak met U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House last month, they tried to forge more common ground on key issues and manage some of their differences. Although Najib and Trump made some progress as they commemorated the 60th anniversary of bilateral ties between Malaysia and the U.S., bigger tests will come in their bid to surmount deeper obstacles that stand in the way of really broadening the relationship.
Throughout the past 60 years, the United States and Malaysia have had to find ways to cooperate despite often stark disagreements on matters such as human rights, economic policy and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. During Barack Obama’s presidency, U.S.-Malaysia ties hit a new high, with both sides elevating the relationship to the level of a comprehensive partnership and Malaysia becoming a member of key U.S.-led initiatives, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, to the international coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Yet despite those trends, recent years have also proven how difficult it is to forge closer ties. Even during the final years of the Obama administration, Najib’s crackdown on domestic dissent and ongoing investigations by the U.S. Justice Department into the high-profile corruption scandal involving Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB—in which Najib is directly implicated—had complicated U.S.-Malaysia relations and imposed limits on what both sides could accomplish. When Trump came into office in January, his tough line on issues ranging from trade to immigration to North Korea initially set off alarm bells in Malaysia not just about bilateral ties, but also the U.S. role in Asia more generally.