Trump-Najib meet will be mutually beneficial: Analysts

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (left) and US President Donald Trump.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (left) and US President Donald Trump. PHOTOS: REUTERS

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is going on a three-day visit to the United States, beginning tomorrow, a controversial trip because it comes as the US Justice Department continues a probe into the 1MDB scandal.

But analysts say the visit, which will include a "four-eye" meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House tomorrow, will be mutually beneficial.

The Trump administration counts Malaysia as an important partner as it grapples with Islamic militancy, North Korea's nuclear adventurism and China's growing influence.

"Najib is the one desperate for the visit, not Trump. But from a US foreign policy perspective, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), North Korea and China are clearly on Trump's mind and Malaysia is important if not crucial on such matters," S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' senior fellow Johan Saravanamuttu told The Straits Times.

Trade, however, is likely to take centre stage in talks as Malaysia is one of 16 countries that the Trump administration has targeted for scrutiny because of their large trade surpluses with the US. In July, US and Malaysian officials agreed to work together to "address outstanding issues" on the U$25 billion (S$33.5 billion) deficit.

"I would like to see this as a two-way, mutually beneficial partnership with the United States. It will not be one way," Datuk Seri Najib said on Friday. He added that Malaysia was open to a bilateral trade deal with its second-biggest foreign investor, after the US pulled out of the expansive Trans-Pacific Partnership in January.

"Najib may well want to assure Trump that Malaysia is exploring ways to reduce the deficit and buy more American products," Mr Murray Hiebert, senior adviser and deputy director of the South-east Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told ST in an e-mail.

Trade... is likely to take centre stage in talks as Malaysia is one of 16 countries that the Trump administration has targeted for scrutiny because of their large trade surpluses with the US.

One quick way would be to buy more American arms.

Mr Najib is also expected to explicitly assure Mr Trump of action to implement fresh United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea - something important to Mr Trump personally - and on the issue of dealing with ISIS.

"Malaysia has increased cooperation with the FBI and CIA in recent years to prepare for the return of several hundred Malaysians who joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq," Mr Hiebert wrote.

The New Straits Times quoted Malaysian Ambassador to the US Zulhasnan Rafique as saying that Mr Najib would seek Washington's support to resolve a humanitarian crisis that has displaced hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar - an issue important to his ruling Umno party.

Mr Najib's trip comes just a month after the Justice Department said its civil suit to seize assets worth US$1.7 billion in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) probe had been converted into a criminal investigation, putting more pressure on the Prime Minister at home, ahead of an election that he must call by next year.

Mr Najib has been dogged by allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement at 1MDB since 2015, but has denied all wrongdoing.

In the run-up to the visit, Mr Trump was criticised by some in the US media for inviting Mr Najib.

"Engulfed by allegations, he (Najib) pilfered billions from his own country's sovereign wealth fund, he craves international legitimacy," said an opinion piece published in The Washington Post last week.

It added that the visit was "meant to show the scandal is not harming his (Najib's) world standing".

Echoing that view, Malaysian opposition MP Tony Pua, a harsh critic of Mr Najib, told The New York Times: "He can say, 'I am not wanted in the United States and I can go there without being arrested'."

Besides the private meeting with Mr Trump, Mr Najib is scheduled to meet Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis. He will also meet members of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and witness the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Malaysian Airlines and Boeing Aircraft Corporation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'Trump-Najib meet will be mutually beneficial: Analysts'. Print Edition | Subscribe