Obama in Malaysia: Pressing times for Asia in conflict

As published in The Malay Mail today.

Being Frank 
By Frankie D’Cruz
TODAY, Barack Obama will become the first sitting US president to visit Malaysia in 47 years. He was five-years-old when Lyndon B. Johnson made the last presidential tour, a 21-hour stopover on Oct 30, 1966. 

(Pic: The VH-3 "Army One" which carried Johnson flies over Sendayan while a crowd gathers - Picture courtesy of malaysiaflyingherald.wordpress.com)

The visits of the two US leaders differ vastly:

Obama’s four-nation Asia tour is calculated to demonstrate his undertaking to pivot US influence towards the Asia-Pacific region, an economic powerhouse.

His trip comes as America’s Asia-Pacific allies are facing threats to stability and are shaken up by historical disputes.

The allies are also guardedly watching the situation in Ukraine and wondering how Obama’s response to Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula might affect Beijing’s strategy in territorial disputes with its neighbours.

Johnson was here to say a big “thank you” to Malaysia because the US held that staunchly anti-Communist Malaysia had from the start backed US policy on Vietnam.

During his eight-day trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, Obama has sought to comfort nervy allies that the US remains steadfast in strengthening its security and economic ties with the region.

The allies of the US are embroiled in territorial disputes with China over islands and waters in the south and east China seas.

Could China, which has leaned more toward the US during the tenure of the two predecessors of China President Xi Jinping, be motivated by Russia’s occupation of Crimea to take bold action in territorial disputes? Not if Obama’s objective of pivoting US foreign policy toward Asia is a sharpened focus. To be sure, the plan that he declared three years ago to shift US attention from Europe and the Middle East towards the Asia-Pacific has been lingering much to the dismay of his allies.

Perhaps, the only time the US admonished China was when the communist nation unilaterally declared an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea last November. The zone overlaps airspace operated by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

That unsettled the Japanese as it intruded into their airspace over the Senkakus, a cluster of uninhabited islands that’s the focus of a bitter territorial row with China, which calls them Diaoyus.
Japanese military scrambled jets 415 times until last month in response to flyovers by Chinese aircraft. 

While the US is bound by a bilateral security treaty to defend Japan, it has avoided taking sides in the dispute for fear of further hostility with China, even with record Chinese military spending.

In the South China Sea, China disputes the sovereignty of a number of islets with countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

China has also interfered with Philippine ships approaching a Philippine-administered shoal, prompting Manila to protest the action.

Obama’s visit to Asia is seen as a makeup to Asia-Pacific leaders after he cancelled a scheduled trip to the region last October, so he could remain in Washington to deal with the government shutdown.

Johnson’s trip was totally different: It was the Vietnam War and questions had lingered why Johnson was visiting Malaysia which unlike other countries in Johnson’s Asia-Pacific tour had no military links with the US.

Malaysia did not commit any troops to the Vietnam conflict and wasn’t at the seven-nation Manila Summit that avowed collective unity and resolve to seek freedom in Vietnam and in the Asia-Pacific region.

Johnson was grateful that Malaysia condemned Communist action in Vietnam and defended the American military presence there.

So, he accepted an open-date invitation in 1964 by then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to come here as a gesture of gratitude.

Gettysburg Times journalist Tony Escoda wrote a day before Johnson’s trip to Malaysia: “At the risk of irritating neutralist friends in Africa and Asia, prime minister (Tunku) Abdul Rahman has urged the Americans to push a ‘bomb them till it hurts’ line against North Vietnam, while searching for a negotiated settlement.”

The US then felt the visit would do much to US prestige in a primarily British corner of Southeast Asia “where America’s image until recently has been superficial.”

They felt Malaysia was undergoing changes that were moving it away from  Britain and shifting it to a more independent course.

Escoda wrote: “Indonesia declared an undeclared guerilla war against Malaysia in 1963 when this federation was created out of former British possessions. 

President Sukarno labelled Malaysia a ‘neo-colonialist project’.

“British troops came in to beat back Indonesian raids in Borneo and on the Malaysian mainland.

“The new regime in Jakarta shut off the confrontation in August 1966, and most of the British troops were withdrawn. With them left some of the bond that tied Malaysia to London.

“There is growing belief in some top-level circles in Malaysia that British power in Asia is waning, and there have been suggestions that the US would make a better protector in an emergency.”

In his remarks on arrival at Subang Airport, Johnson kept to the same tone: “You valiantly subdued a Communist insurgency in your own nation. And then, from the  very same room where you once planned battle strategy, you planned the works of peace.

“You began building a free and prospering countryside that can relieve the poverty and the apathy upon which communism so often thrives.

“Your achievement in this respect, I believe, has the greatest significance for our struggle in Vietnam today.

“Your example offers us hope for the future. It is a great pleasure to be here and to see it firsthand.”

Obama should offer real, genuine policymaker attention for Asia-Pacific where:

● More than half of the world’s people live.

● Half of the world’s economic yield is produced.
●  Many of US exports go to.
● Many of the world’s fastest-growing economies thrive.

In Malaysia and the Philippines, it will underscore the renewed US focus on Southeast Asia, an economically dynamic bloc of 600 million people.

These are pressing times for 21st century Asia but the US rebalance toward Asia should not be seen as a strategy to contain China.

That would be fatal — diplomatically, militarily, commercially and socially.

Multi-award winning journalist FRANKIE D’CRUZ is Editor Emeritus of The Malay Mail. He can be reached at frankie@mmail.com.my or Twitter @frankieDcruz


  1. Sorry bro, wrong topic. I got no one else to ask. How come there is no live matches for Champion Challenge in Kuantan?


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