The second U.S.-ASEAN Summit, set to be held this Friday in New York, is a rare opportunity for the Obama administration to engage an often overlooked and potential partner, especially in the context of global nuclear security: Malaysia.
Back in April, when Obama hosted the historic 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit, Malaysia was the unexpected dark horse - passing the Strategic Trade Act to curb illicit trafficking of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, vowing to stand with the United States in deterring Iran's nuclear ambitions and even promising to send aid to Afghanistan. However, besides a largely inconsequential bilateral meeting and some well-pixilated photos with Obama, Malaysia's effort was met with tepid media attention and limited official follow-up.
Malaysia's relationship with Iran, though worrisome, makes the country an ideal partner. Both members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Malaysia and Iran have strong economic and energy ties, as well close military connections. As Malaysia's third largest trading partner in the Middle East, Iran has been working with Malaysia to develop its natural resources and circumvent sanctions from the West - most recently by offering contracts to a Malaysian firm to develop its South Pars gas field.
Malaysia, on the other hand, has been acting as the middle man for Iran to smuggle military equipment from the U.S.; two Malaysian firms were, in fact, charged by the U.S. Justice Department in 2008 for transporting nuclear technology to Iran, despite denial by Malaysian officials. Thus, bringing Malaysia closer to America will no doubt cause significant economic, political and logistical headaches for Iran's leadership and its nuclear ambition.
Moreover, Malaysia currently holds the chairmanship of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This, along with its good standing and influence among ASEAN countries and members of the OIC and NAM, gives Malaysia tremendous clout to push forward the nuclear non-proliferation agenda.
What makes a U.S.-Malaysia partnership both desirable and likely is the current Malaysian leadership's goodwill towards the U.S. The "gift basket" Malaysia brought to Washington during the Nuclear Security Summit signals no small policy and attitudinal shift. Malaysia's relationship with the U.S. has historically been difficult, if not, at times, outright hostile. This strain springs, in part, from the stridently anti-western foreign policy of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. Mahathir, who ruled Malaysia for 22 years before stepping down in 2003, is still an outspoken, sometimes erratic, critic of the U.S. (In January, he proclaimed on his blog that if Americans could make the movie Avatar, they could stage the attack on and collapse of the World Trade Center.)
The changes and commitments Malaysia made prior to and during the Nuclear Security Summit would be unthinkable under Mahathir. However, the new Prime Minister, Najib Abdul Razak, is departing from the old ways. He has aggressively courted foreign media to remake Malaysia's image abroad, actively sought foreign investment opportunities and aligned Malaysia with the U.S.-led nuclear non-proliferation campaign by shepherding through the Strategic Trade Act, which had been lingering in parliament for five years.
To stay on message, the Malaysian Foreign Ministry went so far as to dismiss a senior envoy to the IAEA last December after he apparently went rogue and casted a "no" vote on a resolution rebuking Iran (the only two other countries that casted "no" votes were Cuba and Venezuela). Malaysia's willingness to befriend the United States has been made abundantly clear; it's time for the U.S. to reciprocate.
The upcoming ASEAN Summit presents only a narrow window for engagement, as making friends with Americans has its political cost, especially in a Muslim country. Returning from the Nuclear Security Summit, Najib faced a barrage of criticism for appearing to kowtow to the United States. Critics even accused Najib of spending $25 million on lobbyists to secure his bilateral meeting with Obama. Opposition politicians charged him of hypocrisy and tried to leverage the issue to gain votes from conservative Muslim Malays. Although the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, didn't suffer any electoral losses, Najib was put on the defensive, repeatedly having to clarify his equal status with Obama, while reasserting his own independence and backbone - something no leader likes to be repeatedly asked of.
Unless the U.S. shows a genuine willingness to engage Malaysia soon, Najib will think twice before offering any more help on Iran, non-proliferation, Afghanistan or anything else. Obama's Asia team needs to prepare its own "gift basket" for Malaysia and deliver it in the Big Apple - before it's too late.