Monday, October 23, 2017


Malaysia, an ethnically diverse majority Muslim nation in Southeast Asia, has long been a partner in U.S. security and economic initiatives in the region, although political sensitivities in Malaysia have constrained both sides from forging deeper ties. Bilateral relations have improved over the past decade. Prime Minister Najib Razak, who came to power in 2009, made relations with the United States a priority early in his administration. More recently he has moved to deepen trade and economic ties with China. Congress has shown interest in a variety of issues in U.S.-Malaysia relations over the years, especially regarding trade, counterterror and security cooperation, human rights, the environment, and Malaysia’s external relations.

Malaysia is considered a middle-income country that is relatively prosperous when compared to other Southeast Asian countries. The United States and Malaysia are major trade and investment partners. In 2016, Malaysia was the 24th-largest market for U.S. exports and the 14th-largest supplier of U.S. imports. The two countries negotiated and signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement (FTA), which would have removed tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade between the United States, Malaysia, and the other 10 participants. President Trump withdrew from the pact in January, stating an intent to negotiate future FTAs bilaterally, potentially with TPP partners. To date, there appears to have been little discussion of resuming bilateral U.S.-Malaysia FTA negotiations, but there may be interest in Malaysia in some type of economic dialogue with the United States such as a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). Malaysia is also seeking to develop deeper regional trade ties through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which does not include the United States.

Malaysia has enjoyed considerable political stability since it gained independence in 1957 despite potential cleavages within its multiethnic and multireligious social fabric. Political coalitions led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the country’s dominant political party, have ruled Malaysia without interruption since independence. UMNO is a staunch proponent of economic and social preferences for ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups, collectively known as bumiputra. It has supported a wide-ranging economic program known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), which attempts to address socio-economic disparities by privileging bumiputra in government contracts, education, and government hiring. Malaysia has also enjoyed broad success in achieving higher income levels for its citizens since independence.

The United States occasionally has criticized the Malaysian government for its weak human rights protections, its record on combatting human trafficking, constraints on press freedom, and prosecution of opposition political leaders like Anwar Ibrahim. Many Members of Congress questioned the improved ranking and asserted that the State Department had overlooked serious human trafficking problems in order to facilitate approval of the TPP.

Malaysia is actively engaged in diplomacy on numerous regional and global issues. Efforts to promote moderate Islam and marginalize religious extremism have been a major part of Malaysian diplomacy, including acting as a mediator in conflicts between Muslim separatist groups and the central government in both the Philippines and Thailand. Malaysia maintains good relations with its neighbors and has promoted cooperation among the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Malaysia is one of several Southeast Asian countries with maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea, although it has assumed a relatively low profile in those disputes. U.S.-Malaysia security cooperation includes counter-terrorism activities, numerous military exercises, ship visits, and military education exchanges.

Purchase at Amazon