MALAYSIA’S U.S. policy under Najib: Ambivalence no more?
Date of Issue2012
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
This paper adopts a neoclassical realist perspective to explain Malaysia’s evolving policy towards the United States under Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. It argues that to the extent that there is a “shift” in Malaysia’s U.S. policy under the current leadership, the substance and symbolism in Najib’s U.S. policy has been driven and limited by the needs of the ruling elite to strike a balance between a variety of structural imperatives and domestic considerations. Structurally, in the face of a fast rising China (with whom Malaysia has come to develop an increasingly productive relation in both economic and diplomatic domains, but with whom it has unresolved territorial issues), the leader of the smaller state is increasingly confronted with the geostrategic need to keep a more balanced relationship with all the major players. This is especially so with the United States, which, under the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia policy, has demonstrated a renewed and enhanced commitment to engage countries in the Asia-Pacific, including Malaysia. This structural push, however, has been counteracted by the smaller state’s desire of not wanting to be entrapped in any big power rivalry, and by its concern about the uncertainties of great power commitments. Domestically, there is a strong economic need to further enhance two-way trade and increase the flow of American capital and technology into Malaysia, deemed vital to Najib’s Economic Transformation Program. Perhaps more importantly, there is also a political calculation by the governing elite to capitalize on the increasingly warm and close bilateral ties as a leverage to reduce – if not neutralize – Washington’s support for the Anwar Ibrahim-led opposition and civil society movements, which have presented a growing challenge to the ruling BN coalition. This calculation, however, has been counteracted by UMNO’s domestic concern of not wanting to appear too closely aligned with America, in order not to alienate the country’s Muslim majority voters who have been critical of U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These structural and domestic determinants together explain Malaysia’s evolving policy toward the superpower under the current leadership.
DRNTU::Social sciences::Political science
RSIS Working Papers, 250-12
Nanyang Technological University