Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is in Beijing this week to sign off on the purchase of Chinese patrol vessels, the first major defense deal between the two countries. As the New York Times notes, the visit is another blow to the Obama administration’s Asia policy:
The presence of a Malaysian leader here would normally not get much attention. But China is seizing on another chance to best Washington in the Southeast Asian battleground after a successful visit by the new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, who excoriated the United States during his visit here two weeks ago.
As the Obama administration is winding down, the Chinese leadership is taking advantage of the moment by trying to chip away at the president’s signature policy of the pivot to Asia, offering attractive military and economic deals to America’s friends in Southeast Asia, particularly to those countries that border the contested South China Sea.
As we noted last week, Najib’s overture to China is spurred in part by anger over U.S. Department of Justice investigations into the country’s scandalous sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB. That controversy has damaged Najib’s international reputation and sent him straight into Beijing’s arms, as China has helpfully agreed to buy the fund’s power assets. Now, that gesture is starting to pay off. China and Malaysia started joint military exercises last year, and reports suggest that Najib will sign agreements on high-speed rail and port projects during his trip to Beijing.
The Malaysian pivot to China is especially embarrassing given President Obama’s clear efforts to court Najib. In 2014, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Malaysia in nearly 50 years; later that year, Najib was the president’s golf buddy during his vacation in Hawaii. Yet that personal outreach cannot disguise the fact that the promises of the Obama administration’s pivot, particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), have failed to come through. Like Duterte, Najib has apparently made the calculation that Beijing has more to offer than Washington—and unlike Duterte, this decision cannot be dismissed as the impulses of an anti-American demagogue.
China is swiftly rolling out the red carpet for America’s would-be allies across Asia. Even as Najib is in Beijing, President Xi Jinping is meeting with Myanmar’s top military man, Min Aung Hiang. Obama has prided himself on improving relations on Myanmar and even lifted American sanctions on the country in September, but Beijing is making a play for its affections as well. If the United States is not careful, even more Asian countries could slip into Beijing’s orbit.