PRESIDENT Donald Trump is set to steer clear of a US investigation into a Malaysian corruption scandal and focus talks on security issues as he welcomes Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak to the White House on Tuesday.
Trump plans to talk with Najib about North Korea’s nuclear provocations, and ways the United States and Malaysia could do more to halt the expansion of Islamic State in southeast Asia, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters on Monday.
The South China Sea will also be part of the talks, as will trade and investment, Sanders said.
The visit is important for Najib, who faces elections next year and wants to signal he is still welcome at the White House despite a criminal probe by the US Justice Department into a state fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Najib founded the fund, which is facing money laundering probes in at least six countries including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore. He has denied any wrongdoing. The White House said it would not comment on the US Department of Justice investigation.
“Investing in a long-term relationship between our countries, that in itself provides a foundation for us to address issues of concern, and that would include corruption and transparency,” a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
At a gathering with Malaysian students and diaspora in Washington on Monday, Najib said his Malaysian delegation would work on enhancing bilateral ties and exploring opportunities for the benefit of both countries.
“We bring to the table a great deal of value propositions. We are not here to ask for money from the US.
“We come here as a rising star – a country that is successful and growing and determined to succeed and to be in top 20 in the world by 2050,” he said, as quoted by the New Straits Times.
Malaysia has increased military cooperation with the United States in the South China Sea, where it has overlapping claims with several countries.
“Malaysia is particularly anxious about the Chinese Navy’s activities off the coast of Sabah and Sarawak where state-owned Petronas is pumping oil and gas,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Najib had once enjoyed close ties with Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, playing golf with the Democratic president in Hawaii in 2014.
But relations cooled over the 1MDB scandal. The Justice Department sued to seize some $1.7 billion in assets it said were bought with misappropriated 1MDB funds.
The Obama administration had also become critical of a Malaysian government crackdown on the media and political opponents.
Najib, who has boasted about golfing with Trump, is less likely to hear about human rights issues from the Republican.
“With Trump in the White House and his administration’s downplaying of human rights and democracy, Najib’s handling of the opposition is not likely to be a focus of the White House meeting,” Hiebert said.
Additional reporting by Reuters