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Asia's Game of Thrones
Malaysia Cozies Up to China

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.

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  • Dhako

    As they say, Geography is destiny, and financial resources are the lubricant of that destiny, be it ill or good kind of destiny. And in the case of China, the likes of Malaysia, is basically a nation who needs China more it needs Uncle Sam. And the reason for that, is that, Malaysia largest trading partner is China (not US by any long short). And, secondly, US is ocean away from Malaysia, whereby, you to China they have fishing boats that come daily contact with their Chinese counterparts. Hence, with Chinese financial wherewithal that can help build various infrastructure that can build the needed local amenities in which Malaysia needs, which is something, the ever dysfunctional and gridlock Washington could never do for them, simply means, there is no-brainer why the economical benefit in which Malaysia can draw from her new-found friendship with China should make sense to them, particularly given the fact that, as things stand, the TPP, in which Malaysians elites did really sweat it against their vested interest who were dead-set against it, seems to be dead-on-Arrival (DoA) in the political halls of Washington, which means, the Malaysian elites would not want to be left in the cold from the only game in town, which is Chinese financial and economical carousel buffet, given the fact, that there is none of that kind of nutritional kind from Uncle Sam’s side of fence. Hence, once again it’s no-brainer to say the least, at least in-terms of why Malaysia is rushing towards a new friendship embrace with China.

    • JR

      History is never static. If China wants to police the waters that are used to move fuel to China, so much the better. We need to start holing less hands around the world.

      • Josephbleau

        Or holing more adversaries below the water line.

  • Beauceron

    You can’t blame Malaysia or the Philippines.
    America is growing weaker– and we will grow weaker still as we spiral inevitably down towards third world status. Even Australia sees the writing on the wall and has been friendlier with China.
    As an American, all you can really say is “Good Luck” to China, or India or Russia, or whoever takes the driver’s seat as dominant world power– if anyone does.
    I for one am sick of it. I’m delighted to be number 3 or 4. I don’t want to play World Cop anymore, and being the guarantor of freedom or whatever is a thankless job that’s become altogether too costly on a lot of different levels.
    It’s one of the few things I agree with Obama on– he’s definitely made us weaker and less of a power on the world stage.
    Sure, smug, self-important foreign policy types won’t be able to strut around international conferences like the big dog on the block anymore– but that’s just a side benefit.

  • longlance

    Malaysia is making a smart move. USA cannot be trusted. Too many “regime-change” capers.

    • Josephbleau

      Yet Obama has a special youthful relationship with Malaysia. Even to culinary culture.

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