Two of the greatest geopolitical challenges facing the United States today are the rising power of China and the ongoing threat of Islamist extremism. The nature of each challenge differs — Beijing is a more conventional strategic rival, competing with Washington for regional and global influence; Islamist extremism is unconventional, threatening the security and stability of American and allied societies. The American public and politicians tend to compartmentalize the two, assuming that each should be considered within a particular political or intellectual space. But there is a region of the world where both challenges overlap, and which requires a particularly careful and sophisticated diplomatic touch: Southeast Asia.
This region, which straddles the global economy’s most important sea lanes, is home to hundreds of millions of Muslims, and is also the site of some of China’s most aggressive moves to improve its geopolitical position. Through its expansive claims in the South China Sea and its efforts to secure a “string of pearls,” strategic bases of influence from Indonesia to Malaysia to India, connecting to the Middle East, China is seeking to strengthen its sway over states in the region as a foundation for greater global influence.
At the same time, ISIS and other Islamist extremists are working to radicalize Muslim across the region, both to intensify and weaponize political differences between Muslims and non-Muslims, particularly those, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar to the Philippines, where if the Muslim population is not in the majority, it is at the least quickly growing. With a growing threat of radical Islam within their border, those states are increasingly seek the ability to invest in their military with new equipment and security tools, as well as investments to upgrade their countries’ infrastructure, from roads to expanded deep water harbors. China has proven to be a more-than-willing partner in both endeavors.
China’s eagerness is doubly strategic because for decades, the United States has been the key partner for both security and economic cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region. Maintaining that role, however, depends on American willingness and ability to identify and work with regional partners over the long haul.
Malaysia has been one such partner for decades. As a multiethnic and religiously diverse society (though Islam is the official religion) with a parliamentary system, which occupies a crucial strategic location along the Straits of Malacca, Malaysia can be a powerful beacon for regional development. It is in America’s interest to maintain the relationship, but this is a particularly difficult time.
The government of Najib Razak is currently struggling with a crisis partially of its own making, related to the Malaysian sovereign wealth investment fund known as 1MDB. The Prime Minister has denied wrongdoing, but Malaysian politics have been roiled by infighting between different factions, and is vulnerable to pressure from outside forces who seek to profit from the upheaval. Pressured by China to accede to their desires in the South China Sea, and beset by Islamic radicals at home, Malaysia is in a period of maximum disruption. It is especially important for the United States to act as a steadying force, by demonstrating its continued willingness to work with Malaysia through this difficult period and beyond.
Malaysia is well worth the effort. In addition to being a key partner in regional counterterrorism, Malaysia remains a crucial entry point for the Southeast Asian region for American investments and products. The United States is Malaysia’s third largest trading partner. American firms are heavily invested in the manufacturing, electronics, and energy sectors while Malaysian firms have also engaged in significant deals with American technology and aerospace firms. Total trade volume between the two countries was over $32 billion in 2016, and is poised to go beyond that this year. The U.S. trade deficit with Malaysia is a modest three percent of total trade, and Malaysia has never been considered a target of trade complaints from Washington. Indeed, based on previous experience, further economic growth in Malaysia will bring increased demand for American manufactured products and services in the future. The decision to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership notwithstanding, it is in America’s interest to preserve these vital connections between Washington and Kuala Lumpur.
Such connections may be mutually beneficial, but they are not automatic even in the best of times. They require regular communication and cultivation. That is even more true in our rapidly changing international system, where systemic challenges raise the stakes.
Prime Minister Razak is scheduled to meet with President Trump today. Critics have already questioned the political motives on both sides. The future of Malaysia, however, can best be secured by mutual efforts to encourage economic growth and security as well as a stable parliamentary order. That requires high level consultation. The Trump Administration’s efforts to shape relations with Asia according to its definition of American interests must build upon a firm foundation of established alliances. Partners need not agree on everything, but they should value each other’s contributions to the partnership enough to encourage honest engagement and mutual support. The meeting in Washington provides a significant opportunity to cultivate trans-Pacific ties, and to point the way toward a better future for Malaysians, Americans, and their neighbors.
Dr. Granieri is executive director for the Center for the Study of America and the West at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.