Obama Adds Malaysia To His Asia Itinerary

Obama travels to Malaysia next week, where the government is under fire for the handling of a missing airliner. NPR's Wade Goodwyn talks to Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

For his second term, president Obama has touted that his administration would make a so-called Asia pivot - less focus on the Middle East, more on China. But history has a way of intervening. This week, the president will try to make something of his promise as he visits three U.S. allies - Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. He'll also be stopping in Malaysia, and he'll be the first U.S. president to do so in almost 50 years.

The White House has described Malaysia as a nascent, Muslim democracy that's, quote, "stepping up and modernizing." But the government's come under fire for its treatment of local opposition leaders as well as its handling of its missing Boeing 777. So is the president's visit still diplomatically appropriate? Here to answer that is Joshua Kurlantzick. He's a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Josh, welcome.

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: Thank you for having me.

GOODWYN: Josh, Malaysia has been a country that the U.S. has, in the past, pointed to as a role model, but has not exactly been democracy heaven. Is the government still on our role-model list? How is the administration feeling?

KURLANTZICK: Well, my own opinion is they probably should have never been on the role-model list, but certainly the president is going to have more mixed feeling than he would've a few months ago. The plane vanishing and how Malaysia handled it simply exposed what people who know Malaysia already knew, which is that it's really an authoritarian or a pseudo-authoritarian government with some trappings of democracy, not used to a free press and not really used to being questioned hard by outsiders. So it was, at a time, a model of moving towards democracy, but it actually has sort of stalled or regressed at this point.

GOODWYN: So where does that leave the administration? I mean, are they still happy to come or they have mixed feelings now? Have they put themselves between a rock and a hard place?

KURLANTZICK: They definitely have mixed feelings because they promised that the U.S. was going to reengage with the region as part of this broader pivot or rebalancing. And Malaysia was going to be central to that. And they created a situation in which they sort of have to tout Malaysia because if you say this is going to be an important partner, you also want to tell people that - all the great things about your new partner. But there aren't so many necessarily great things to say, and so they've put themselves in that position.

That said, Malaysia is a good strategic partner for the United States in terms of military cooperation and some other things. But it's certainly not the role model that Obama, you know, I think wanted to portray to us.

GOODWYN: And then there's the trade agreement. Malaysia was one of the primary supporters of this Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but now that seems to be falling apart. What's going on?

KURLANTZICK: Right. Well, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is falling apart for a lot of different reasons including problems getting it pushed here, problems in Japan. But the Obama administration wanted Malaysia to be a strong advocate so it didn't look like the United States, and to some extent Japan - the big boys, were just pushing a trade agreement. But in Malaysia, the agreement's not that popular. So Malaysia is not the strong supporter of it that it was before. So Obama can't really tout that either.

GOODWYN: How does Malaysia fit into the so-called Asian pivot?

KURLANTZICK: Well, the pivot has multiple parts, but the primary part is increasing the United States military's presence in the Asian Pacific, moving some military assets Asia-Pacific. Malaysia sits right astride one of the most contested places in the world, which is the South China Sea. And over the years, Malaysia has moved farther and farther away from sort of a relatively warm embrace of China to real concerns about China's actions in the South China Sea. So Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all have those concerns. And they are all looking for a closer military relationship with the U.S., and the U.S. is providing that.

GOODWYN: Josh Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Josh, thanks so much.

KURLANTZICK: Thank you.

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