Trump-Najib meet mutually beneficial despite 1MDB brickbats

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

KUALA LUMPUR/WASHINGTON - Washington's willingness to host Malaysian leader Najib Razak for a three-day visit beginning Tuesday (Sept 12) has been criticised in both countries due to the United State's ongoing probe into the billion-dollar 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) graft scandal engulfing the latter.

But there is mutual benefit to both parties, analysts say, as Malaysia, despite being on the Trump administration's trade blacklist, still has plenty to offer on the foreign policy front.

Datuk Seri Najib will use the visit, which includes a four-eyed meeting with President Donald Trump on Tuesday, as "proof" that the Department of Justice probe into US$4.5 billion (S$6.04 billion) allegedly siphoned from state firm 1MDB does not implicate him as a suspect.

The Trump administration also 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 of Iraq and Syria, North Korea and China are clearly on Trump's mind and Malaysia is important if not 'crucial' on such matters," Rajaratnam School of International Studies' senior fellow Johan Saravanamuttu told The Straits Times.

Mr Najib's trip comes just a month after the Department of Justice (DOJ) said its civil suit to seize assets worth US$1.7 billion in the 1MDB probe, has been converted into a criminal investigation.

Mr Najib, who must call an election by August 2018, has been dogged since 2015 by reports that US$700 million linked to 1MDB was deposited into his personal accounts. He has denied using public funds for personal interests, claiming instead the money was a political donation from the Saudi royal family.

American media has criticised Mr Trump's invitation as it "will send a clear signal to Malaysians that his administration, like its predecessors, won't push back against the rollback of democracy, rule of law and human rights there".

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

But trade is likely to take centrestage in official talks, as America's nearly US$25 billion goods trade deficit with the Muslim-majority country making it one of 16 that Washington is scrutinising.

"I would like to see this as a two-way, mutually beneficial partnership with the United States, it will not be one way," Mr Najib stressed on Friday.


He added that Malaysia is open to a bilateral trade agreement with its second biggest foreign investor, after America pulled out from the expansive Trans Pacific Partnership in January, reducing the size of the economic pact by 75 per cent.

"Najib may well want to assure Trump that Malaysia is exploring ways to reduce the deficit and buy more American products," Mr Murray Hiebert, Deputy Director, Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told The Straits Times in an e-mail.

One quick way would be to buy more American arms. Malaysia raised some eyebrows last year when it reportedly sealed a deal to buy four littoral defence ships from China, with some analysts suggesting this was a blow to America.

Mr Najb is also expected to explicitly assure Mr Trump of action to implement fresh UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea - something important to Mr Trump personally. North Korea's acceleration of its nuclear programme was said to be top of the agenda when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Kuala Lumpur last month.

The PM will likely assure the US - and vice versa - of being on the same page in dealing with the Islamic State.

"The Malaysians are struggling with this issue," BowerGroupAsia consultancy's chief executive Ernie Bower told The Straits Times. "They are very good at counter terrorism but cooperation and intelligence sharing with the US is vital."

Malaysia also wants to raise the alleged persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar, a politically important point for the ruling Umno.

The New Straits Times quoted Malaysian Ambassador to the United States Zulhasnan Rafique as saying Mr Najib would seek America's support to resolve a humanitarian crisis that has displaced hundreds of thousands.

Aside from Tuesday's meet with Mr Trump at the Oval Office, Mr Najib will be joined by his trade and foreign ministers in a delegation conference with Trump's Cabinet and advisers including Vice-President Mike Pence, Mr Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis, Chief of Staff Gen John Kelly, National Security Adviser Lt Gen H.R. McMaster and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner.

The premier will also meet the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations at the Capitol building and witness the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Malaysian Airlines and Boeing Aircraft Corporation.