Tillerson to make inaugural visits to Thailand, Malaysia on Aug 8

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking at the 50th Asean regional security forum, in Manila on Aug 6, 2017.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking at the 50th Asean regional security forum, in Manila on Aug 6, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

PUTRAJAYA (Bernama, Reuters) - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kicks off a two-day working visit to Malaysia from Tuesday (Aug 8), affirming the commitment by US President Donald Trump to strengthen bilateral ties with the country.

This is Mr Tillerson's inaugural visit to Malaysia since his appointment as the Secretary of State on Feb 1.

"The visit will provide the opportunity for both Malaysia and the United States of America to discuss and exchange views on a wide range of bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest," Wisma Putra said in a statement on Monday.

Mr Tillerson is scheduled to call on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak on Tuesday and meet Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on Wednesday.

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Malaysia and the United States enjoy excellent relations with substantial collaboration in many areas. Between January and May 2017, total bilateral trade grew 23.3 per cent to RM68.2 billion (S$21.68 billion) compared to RM55.3 billion during the corresponding period in 2016.

Before heading to Malaysia, Mr Tillerson will visit Thailand on a tour that has already taken him to the Philippines.

Thai officials voiced hope ahead of the visit of escaping US pressure over the size of their trade surplus with the United States as their figures point to a jump in imports, but US data shows little change.

A spokeswoman for the State Department's East Asia Bureau said Mr Tillerson, who will be the most senior US official to visit Thailand since a 2014 coup, will discuss a broad range of issues including security, trade and investment.

Mr Tillerson visits Bangkok on Tuesday after attending regional meetings in Manila at the weekend.

A narrowing trade gap would also reduce the risk of Thailand being labelled by Washington as a currency manipulator - the last thing Thailand wants as it struggles with a baht currency that exporters find uncomfortably strong.

According to Thai customs-cleared figures, imports rose 35 per cent from a year earlier in the first six months of 2017 while exports to the United States rose 7 per cent.

That meant Thailand's trade surplus over the six months narrowed from US$6 billion to US$4.8 billion.

"We hope higher imports from the US will help ease pressure on this issue... and the trend should continue," Mr Pimchanok Vonkhorporn, head of the commerce ministry's trade policy and strategy office, told Reuters on Monday.

However, US figures calculated using a different methodology showed little change in the gap during the first five months year on year. The US estimate of a Thai trade surplus of US$18.9 billion put it in 11th place on US President Donald Trump's list of countries to be investigated.

The growth in Thailand's imports from the United States this year was led by planes and parts, circuit boards, chemicals, metal and machinery and parts, the Thai data showed.

It shows "we haven't conducted any trade protectionist policy", said Professor Thanavath Phonvichai of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

After being put on the US list, Thailand defended itself with a 22-page justification that covered everything from its support for the United States in the Korean War to investment by US companies in Thailand.

About 40 per cent of Thai exports to the United States come from US firms, officials say. Thailand is the world's No. 2 maker of hard drives, with US firm Seagate Technology and Western Digital among big players.

Although the Trump administration has indicated no specific action against Thailand, Mr Trump has ordered a study into the causes of US trade deficits.