Malaysia-US Relations and the Biden Administration: Mapping Excitement, Managing Expectations
Updated: Apr 10
This article was published in ISEAS Perspective 2021/46, 16 April 2021
Malaysia, like many other countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, is enthusiastic that “America is back”, primarily because the Biden administration is perceived to be more credible, projects more confidence, and promises more room for collaboration on key issues
However, collaboration between Malaysia and the United States is likely to be constrained by competing priorities and persistent gaps on multiple fronts.
These include the gaps between the Biden administration’s domestic priorities and external aspirations, the risks of entrapment surrounding the growing US-China rivalry, Washington’s episodic attention to Southeast Asia, as well as the recurring problems on governance and economic issues at the bilateral level.
Hence, expectations must be managed as Malaysia and the United States seek to expand their partnership, explore greater cooperation on such converging interests as public health and maritime issues, while strengthening already institutionalised links in the economic and security realms.
The election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States has been greeted with much fanfare by political and policy elites, business groups, and the general public in Malaysia. While some are more enthusiastic than others, the prevailing mood in Malaysia is that Biden’s election is good news for the region and the world. This positive response is evident in social media as well as in statements by leaders and officials. It is also clearly reflected in the State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report by the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. According to the report, as many as 71.7 percent of Malaysian respondents believe the level of US engagement with Southeast Asia under the new Biden administration will “increase” or “increase significantly”; and 55.5 percent express “some confidence” and “full confidence” the US will be a reliable strategic partner and provider of regional security.
Malaysia’s relations with the United States have been longstanding, robust and institutionalised. Despite Malaysia not being a treaty ally of the US and despite political rifts during Mahathir Mohamad’s first premiership (1981-2003), bilateral relations have been resilient, especially in economics, defence and people-to-people connectivity. The United States has been one of Malaysia’s top trading, investing and security partners for decades. Bilateral ties, enhanced during the Najib Razak years (2009-2018), were elevated to a Comprehensive Partnership in 2014. Political relations were stable but lukewarm during Mahathir’s second administration (2018-2020), which overlapped with the second half of the Donald Trump presidency. Mahathir, who returned to power in May 2018, publicly described Trump as “unpredictable”, criticised the Trump administration’s proposed Israel-Palestine peace deal as “grossly unjust”, and urged President Trump to resign “to save America”.
Biden’s victory has raised hopes for further strengthening of the Malaysia-US partnership and for new areas of collaboration, as both countries and others in the international community continue to battle COVID-19 and work towards economic recovery amid global uncertainty.
On 8 November 2020, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin congratulated Biden on the latter’s victory in the US presidential election, describing it as “historic”. He was among the first leaders to do so after the major news networks declared Biden the winner, but before the electoral college had confirmed the outcome of the election. Muhyiddin – whose Perikatan Nasional (PN)-Plus coalition replaced the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition as the federal government on 1 March 2020 – stated that the US-Malaysia Comprehensive Partnership “continues to be an overarching framework for pro-active, multifaceted and mutually beneficial collaboration between [the] two countries”, and that “Malaysia looks forward to strengthening further its partnership with the US under Biden’s leadership”.
This excitement is in part rooted in shared political values: a belief in the resilience of democracy and its capacity to respond to and address problems. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim hailed Biden’s victory as “a win over racism and one for human rights.” Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said the triumph of Biden and Harris “represent a combination of strengths within a democracy that is still working, albeit its weaknesses and critics.”
In multi-ethnic, middle-income Malaysia, enthusiasm for the Biden-Harris victory is also about cherishing multiculturalism and women empowerment. As observed by Mustafa Anuar of Aliran, Kamala Harris’ success “in breaking the glass ceiling in American politics was celebrated the world over, especially by people who cherish the remarkable advancement of women and minorities in important areas of life.” This observation is shared among ethnic minorities and women advocates in Malaysia.
The major reason for Malaysians’ exhilaration, however, lies in the prospect of policy change after four years of Trump’s unpredictability and an “America First” agenda. Many welcomed Biden’s pledges in re-emphasizing multilateralism and partnerships, while reversing Trump’s controversial policies, particularly those on the environment, health, immigration and in relation to the Muslim world. These pledges became reality after Biden was sworn in in January 2021. America re-joined the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization and reset its relations with allies, partners, and the rest of the world.
Biden’s lifting of the Trump administration’s “Muslim travel ban” – which prohibited individuals from certain Muslim countries from entering the United States – on his first day in office is symbolically important and was lauded by Malaysians, in particular the Malay Muslim majority. Biden’s intention to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, resume contact with Palestinian leaders, and restore aid to Palestinians are seen as important steps in restoring trust between America and Muslim countries, which had been diminished by the Islamophobic rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration.
Malaysian policy analysts and experts are optimistic on different grounds. Focusing on Biden’s credibility and his renewed commitment to multilateralism and free trade, Malaysian observers and commentators are hopeful that American global leadership and regional activism will be revived. Prospects of a more credible bilateral diplomacy can in turn help cultivate mutually beneficial relations, enhance regional prosperity and stability, and strengthen the role of ASEAN-based institutions in regional affairs. CIMB ASEAN Research Institute chairman Munir Majid, for instance, opines that “Biden would bring a more civilised style and a less strident tone in the conduct of foreign policy”, and is likely to engage better with Malaysia and ASEAN in contrast to Trump’s protectionist, neo-isolationist approach.
Other analysts like Oh Ei Sun concur, adding that the Biden win “mean[s] a less transactional, more predictable America which once again embraces multilateralism and free trade,” and that these are “of special interest to Malaysia and many other Southeast Asian countries for which renewed trade with and investment from America are important for their economic development.” Munir, however, cautions that the Biden team has “a lot of ground to make up” after the Trump years and in light of China’s rise; hence, it may not be “America is back” but “America is beginning to come back”.
On strategic and security fronts, confidence in the Biden administration is high, as reflected in the ISEAS survey. A more engaged and proactive America may help broaden Southeast Asian countries’ external options. Thomas Daniel, a fellow at ISIS Malaysia, observes that the new US administration is likely to consult more with ASEAN and Southeast Asian claimant states in the South China Sea disputes. This is welcome as US-elevated engagement with regional countries on and across multilateral platforms and mechanisms as a constructive player is expected to “provide practical options and avenues for cooperation”, so long as US revitalised partnerships are “not for the purpose of containing China”.
MIND THE GAPS
The excitement and expectations notwithstanding, we should not lose sight of several enduring gaps and competing prioritisations that will limit how the optimism will be translated into desired outcomes.
First, there are gaps between the Biden administration’s domestic priorities and external aspirations. Despite Team Biden’s pledge to restore and reinvent US leadership, a wide range of domestic problems and crises are likely to consume much of the new administration’s energies. Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic economic recovery, battling domestic extremism and other domestic issues top the list.
Domestic preoccupations have external ramifications. Take for instance the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade deal promoted by US President Barack Obama. In 2017, Trump withdrew from the TPP, which was later renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Despite the Biden administration’s intention to join the CPTPP, this is a hard sell because the idea of further trade liberalisation is highly unpopular and hence politically risky in post-Trump America. This domestic hurdle is likely to prevail over the US’s external aspirations and expectations. This is true even in the wake of the November 2020 signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the ten ASEAN states, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. The RCEP, the world’s largest free trade agreement by population, is an ASEAN-led initiative without the involvement of the United States.
These domestic challenges not only limit US ability to pursue its external aspirations and meet its partners’ expectations, they also constrain its ability to lead the world by “the power of example”, as proclaimed by Biden in his Inauguration speech. The 6 January 2021 assault on the US Capitol shattered America’s credibility as a champion of democracy. The country’s deeply divisive politics, racism, politics of misinformation and inept pandemic response have eroded the global appeal of the United States. Many of these problems will endure beyond Trump, with unintended consequences externally. Richard Haas, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, observes that “US allies understandably fear that in four years, Americans could return to Trumpism, if not the man himself. The fear that Trump was not an aberration, but rather reflected what the United States has become, undermines US influence.”
The second gap has to do with the systemic dynamics underpinning US-China rivalry. The more the big powers slide into sharper competition and escalating tension, the smaller states such as Malaysia will be fearful of being entrapped into conflicts against their will. Given the bipartisan consensus in the United States on dealing with China, the competitive elements of Trump’s China policy will remain during the Biden Administration. During his confirmation hearing, the incoming US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken said that Trump “was right in taking a tougher approach to China”, even though he disagrees “very much with the way that he [Trump] went about it in a number of areas”. President Biden separately said in an interview that China is in for “extreme competition” from the United States under his administration, although he also emphasised that Washington and Beijing “need not have a conflict”.
In short, while America’s China policy under Biden will involve different approaches and means, its strategic ends remain the same. This approach was articulated clearly by Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi, respectively the Indo-Pacific Coordinator and Senior China Director at the National Security Council, in their January 2021 Foreign Affairs essay on addressing the China challenge while restoring the balance of power and legitimate order in Asia.
These dynamics present Malaysia and smaller countries in the region with opportunities and challenges. While the majority of regional states want to leverage a more predictable Washington to constrain China and believe that the United States under Biden “will do the right thing”, they are deeply concerned about the risks of becoming the arena for and proxies of major power competition. This ambivalence is well reflected in Malaysia’s attitudes towards the increased freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and overflight operations by the United States in the contested waters of the South China Sea. The growing US-China animosity has led Malaysia to view the South China Sea imbroglio not just as a territorial issue but more a matter of big power rivalry. Increased US engagement in Southeast Asia is welcome but increased US presence subsumed under US-China rivalry is not. Malaysia, like other ASEAN countries, wants Washington to view Southeast Asia in its own right, not as a tool, location or avenue for big power competition.
Finally, there are structural gaps within the United States’ Asia policy. While Washington under Biden will attach more importance to Asia as a whole, it will continue to pay more attention to Northeast Asia than Southeast Asia. Biden’s first foreign policy speech as President on 4 February 2021 mentioned neither ASEAN nor Southeast Asia. This is neither new nor surprising. For the US foreign policy establishment, Northeast Asia has always been and will continue to be more important than Southeast Asia.
This is not only because of big power politics (US-China relations), but also due to the presence of more important treaty allies (Japan and South Korea) and potential regional hotspots (Taiwan and North Korea). Southeast Asia, by comparison, is often “off the radar screen” in Washington, DC. Scholars have long described Washington’s episodic attention to Southeast Asia as “benign neglect” or “systemic neglect” typical of asymmetric power relations. 
As a relatively stable region post-Indochina conflicts, Southeast Asia does not require persistent or profound attention from the US foreign policy establishment. While the relative neglect is benign, in the current context of power rivalry and regional transformation, the consequences of this neglect may not be entirely so. In the eyes of Malaysia and other smaller states, episodic and fluctuating attention raises questions about the sustainability and reliability of the US security commitment, leading them to question the viability of the United States as a “resident power” in Asia.
This is especially so when the smaller states see a recurring problem: Washington often does not see Southeast Asia in its own right, but as a means to the US’ prioritised ends (for example, the global war on terror in the 2000s, and the China challenge since the 2010s). There are interests beyond the US-China conflict in Malaysia-US and Southeast Asia-US relations which must be pursued on equal, mutually beneficial and sustainable grounds.
We should not have unrealistic expectations that Malaysia-US relations will be dramatically improved or that the systemic ambivalence and benign neglect will disappear during the Biden era. Washington will naturally attach different degrees of importance to different countries, depending on their value to US interests. Malaysia’s value stems from its strategic location, its time-honoured defence and security partnership with America, its claimant country status in the South China Sea, its role as a key ASEAN member state, and its identity as a progressive Muslim-majority nation.
These attributes underpin the prospects and potential of bilateral cooperation in the Biden era. On 15 February 2021, when the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur paid a courtesy visit to Wisma Putra (Malaysia’s foreign ministry), both sides agreed to strengthen the cooperative partnership between Malaysia and the United States “through multi-level engagements” in the post-pandemic era. 
Bilaterally, during the Biden era, Malaysia and the United States are expected to enhance their Comprehensive Partnership on such fronts as: (a) trade and investment; (b) defence and security (military training and exercises, counter-terrorism, counter-narratives, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, etc.); and (c) people-to-people (education, tourism, etc.). They are also likely to forge collaboration on areas where both sides enjoy converging interests and/or complementary advantages, for example, public health, border security, digital connectivity and supply chain restructuring, and sustainable development, green technology, and capacity-building.
More specifically, vaccines are a potential area of bilateral public health cooperation founded on the mutual interest of Malaysia and the United States. Malaysia has purchased the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as the largest part of its vaccine portfolio. As of February 2021, Malaysia is deploying the largest absolute number of doses of the Pfizer vaccine in Southeast Asia. Most other countries are relying on the Sinovac vaccine, like Thailand, Indonesia and The Philippines. Although Singapore is deploying the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, their absolute number of doses will be lower due to a smaller population.
This provides Malaysia with a reasonable basis to negotiate for technology transfers and domestic production of the Pfizer vaccine, for domestic, regional or global markets. The Biden Administration may welcome such a move, as it supports global health security and their own vaccine and health diplomacy efforts on top of the financial rewards. However, Malaysia’s prior decision in 2017 to compulsorily license sofosbuvir (a Hepatitis C drug made by Gilead, an American pharmaceutical) may complicate the legal and patent negotiations, but this is surmountable given the different disease, product and market characteristics.
Washington’s renewed commitment to partnerships and multilateralism enables stronger Malaysia-US collaboration at bilateral and regional levels. When Muhyiddin visited the United States in September 2019 as Minister of Home Affairs, he emphasised the need to safeguard peace and stability in Southeast Asia, and envisaged Malaysia as “a linchpin nation” with the primary role of bridging the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, while building partnerships with countries in the two regions to spur economic growth as well as binding these nations through institutions that promote shared security, shared prosperity and shared identity. He added: “These three inextricably related linchpin roles of bridging, building, and binding the two oceanic regions require Malaysia to initiate and strengthen genuine cooperation with multiple countries, including the US.”
Despite the increased prospect of a multi-level partnership between Malaysia and the United States, we should expect some recurring problems on such governance and economic issues as labour rights, environment, freedom of expression and migration. In a meeting with the Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur in February 2021, a senior UMNO leader brought up the US ban on Malaysian palm oil imports, describing the ban as “unnecessary and could be detrimental in various aspects”.
In the same month, the US Embassy expressed concerns about the Malaysian Federal Court’s decision that the news portal Malaysiakini was in contempt of court and liable to a fine of RM500,000, noting that the decision will have impact “on press freedom in Malaysia” and stressing that “freedom of expression, including for members of the press and the general public, is fundamental for public discourse and the democratic principles that support accountability and good governance.” The embassy also voiced concerns about Malaysian authorities’ decision to deport 1,200 Myanmar nationals in February 2021, warning that the move “could put deportees’ lives at risk” in light of the military coup in Myanmar.
Looking ahead, the major challenge facing Malaysia-US relations – and for that matter, Malaysia’s overall foreign policy – is in fact Malaysia’s domestic political uncertainty. If Malaysia fails to get its house in order, all the opportunities and possibilities will be missed.
Even worse, risks and dangers might be misjudged and issues mis-prioritised. Strategically and functionally, concrete inter-governmental collaboration with the United States and other countries remains on a “wait-and-see” basis as foreign countries observe and wait for the formation of a stable federal government in Putrajaya. Missed opportunities, misjudged risks, and mis-prioritised issues are therefore matters of acute importance, especially at this juncture of unprecedented global transformation, as other countries compete to strategise and reinvent themselves to rebuild in the post-pandemic era.
***Abdul Razak Ahmad is the founding director of Bait Al Amanah, and concurrently a member of the Board of Director, the University of Nottingham in Malaysia.
***Kuik Cheng-Chwee is Associate Professor and Head of Centre for Asian Studies, IKMAS, National University of Malaysia (UKM).
***Khor Swee Kheng is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the UN University International Institute for Global Health. The authors thank Izyan Hay for excellent research support.