WASHINGTON — The sodomy conviction of Malaysia’s opposition leader has set back, but not derailed, Washington’s improved ties with a country that is becoming increasingly important for US diplomacy and trade policy in Asia.
The White House strongly criticized the conviction of Anwar Ibrahim, whose case was widely seen as politically motivated. That could dash Prime Minister Najib Razak’s hopes this year of being the first Malaysian leader to be invited to the White House since 2004.
The Obama administration has been considering inviting Najib as Malaysia takes the lead of the 10-nation Southeast Asian bloc that has become pivotal for Washington’s engagement with the region.
Anwar began a five-year prison term Tuesday. He posed the most serious threat to Najib’s ruling coalition, whose popularity has eroded after more than five decades of dominance.
An earlier sodomy conviction against Anwar was overturned in 2004 after he’d served six years in prison.
That case also drew US criticism and contributed to a rocky period in US-Malaysian relations in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.
But ties have improved on Najib’s watch. Last April, Barack Obama became the first US president to visit Malaysia since 1966, and the two leaders played golf while both vacationed in Hawaii in December.
Malaysia is important to the US for various reasons. It is among 12 nations in a trans-Pacific trade pact, the main economic plank of the administration’s so-called pivot to Asia. Negotiators are scrambling to finalize a deal amid US hopes that Congress can approve it later this year.
Malaysia, a moderate Muslim nation of 30 million people and currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, is also important partner for US in countering violent Islamic extremism. On Tuesday, Obama’s special envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State group held talks with Malaysia’s defense minister. The State Department credits Malaysia with taking steps to halt flows of foreign fighters.
The US and Malaysia cooperate on counter-terrorism and have deepening military ties, conducting joint exercises and other training activities. Malaysia sent military medics to Afghanistan, and has supported a US-backed drive to counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
So while the White House was quick to speak out over Anwar’s conviction for sodomizing a male aide—considered a crime in Malaysia—it spelled out no negative consequences for the US-Malaysia relationship, which was upgraded last year to a “comprehensive partnership.”
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the case raised “serious concerns about rule of law and the fairness of the judicial system in Malaysia.” But she added, “we remain committed to expanding our cooperation on shared economic and security challenges.”
The measured US response reflected the delicate line Washington attempts to tread, criticizing infringements on political freedom in Asia without sacrificing its strategic goals.
Thailand is another case in point. Last May’s military coup prompted the US to suspend military aid, straining American relations with its oldest Asian ally.
But this week the US pressed ahead with its annual Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand, albeit on a smaller scale than past years. It is the largest, multi-nation military drill the US conducts in the region, with 3,600 American troops taking part.
Malaysia’s regional importance intensifies in 2015 as it takes the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Asean provides the main multilateral forum for US diplomatic outreach in Asia, hosting an annual summit that Obama typically attends in the fall.
It is a crucial year for the grouping, whose members range from rich city-state Singapore, communist-governed Vietnam and sprawling island nation and emerging democracy, Indonesia. Asean is aiming to achieve economic integration by the end of 2015.
The US is looking for Asean to make progress on a legally binding code of conduct to tamp down tensions between China and its neighbors in the disputed South China Sea.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday she was not aware of plans to change US participation in Asean meetings in the light of Anwar’s conviction.
“We’re not engaging in quid pro quo actions,” she said, but added that the verdict and the Malaysian government’s intent to expand a sedition law to prosecute critics could influence the course of the bilateral relationship.