Malaysiakini Letter

Learn from Thailand and Vietnam's visits to White House

Saleh Mohammed  |  Published:  |  Modified:

We need to learn to acquire knowledge or skills or modify a behavioural tendency. We have to continuously learn to be successful.

Yes, we did go to the White House as a rising star, a country that is successful and growing and determined to succeed. We wanted to help “strengthen the US economy” and placed importance on three fundamental security issues. We made a commitment that the enemy of the US is also the enemy of Malaysia.

There were glowing tributes to the visit by our prime minister to the White House, right from the first-class welcome to US President Donald Trump’s send-off at the door.

It was supposed to be the first time a prime minister from a small country had personally been invited to the White House. It sort of showed that our prime minister’s leadership style is approved of and respected by bigger nations.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha from Thailand also visited the White House a few days ago - a rare instance of a military ruler being feted in Washington (photos above). Human rights groups have opposed the visit. But it did not deter Trump from welcoming Prayut and his wife, Naraporn Chan-o-cha for talks and a working lunch.

Discussions included strengthening cooperation, including in defence and security and "to help ensure that our citizens are safeguarded from terrorism and other threats." The two nations would work closely on regional issues of concern. UN sanctions on North Korea and the Rohingya situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state were also discussed.

On bilateral trade, Trump said, “I think we're going to try and sell a little bit more to you now, make that a little bit better if that’s possible”. The US is running a US$19 billion deficit with Thailand. As a symbolic gesture, Prayut invited Ivanka Trump (the president's daughter and entrepreneur) to Thailand.

Much earlier, there was also a meeting in Washington between Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Regional security and the issues of the contested claims in the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear program were discussed.  

The trade imbalance between the two countries was US$32 billion in 2016. However, both leaders trumpeted the signing of about US$8 billion in commercial deals involving the purchase of American machinery for electricity production and aircraft engines.

Phuc welcomed good relations between the two powers, but hoped these would serve the interest of other nations in the region too. He urged Washington and Beijing “to act with full transparency and in a responsible manner so as not to impact negatively the region and relations among other nations”.

Some lessons we can learn from the above are:

  • It is not the first time a prime minister from a small country has been personally invited to the White House.
     
  • Issues discussed were generally similar with all three countries.
     
  • It seems the US not only approved of and respected our prime minister’s leadership style but also approved and respected that of Thailand and Vietnam.
     
  • Thailand has a big trade imbalance with the US but did not offer to buy more. It is the latter that said, “I think we're going to try and sell a little bit more to you now, make that a little bit better if that’s possible”. I think the negotiation power is tipping towards the former. The icing on the cake is the invitation for Trump’s daughter to invest in Thailand.
     
  • Vietnam’s trade imbalance with the US is bigger than ours, but we really had to “bend backwards” to appease the latter by helping “to strengthen its economy”.
     
  • We did not really need to commit to stating that the enemy of the US was also the enemy of Malaysia.
     
  • Phuc exhibited true statesmanship when he welcomed good relations between the two powers but also said that he hoped these would serve the interest of other nations in the region too.

We may have succeeded in showing that we are a rising star, a country that is successful and growing and determined to succeed, but Thailand and Vietnam taught us self-confidence and bargaining skills.

Sadly, we need to explain our trade surplus to the US, but our neighbours showed us how to have confidence in oneself and in one's powers and abilities.

There may be a cancellation of a joint public appearance in the Oval Office or the absence of a working lunch at the White House, but we must move on with confidence without the need to kowtow to any superpower.

A "positive and friendly meeting" is good and nice, but not enough for us to be really successful.

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