Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs on Prime Minister’s US visit

Dato’ Seri Reezal Merican

I am perplexed and bemused at the lack of understanding of international relations as recently displayed by certain quarters in their unfounded allegations regarding Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohd. Najib Tun Abdul Razak’s visit to the United States.

As Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, I feel compelled to address some of the statements made by several opposition politicians, with a view to clarifying the facts while at the same time educating them on some of the basics of diplomatic protocol and international relations.

All countries, including Malaysia, have different categorizations for visits by foreign dignitaries. For the United States, the visits are broadly divided into five categories, namely state visits, official visits, official working visits, working visits and private visits.

As had been made clear through a press release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 24 August 2017, YAB Prime Minister’s visit to the United States on 11-13 September 2017 is a working visit, and was made upon President Donald Trump’s invitation. As such, there should be no reason for any party to misrepresent the nature of the visit.

Regretfully, some opposition politicians have purposely sought to mislead the rakyat by claiming the Government has portrayed the visit as an official visit instead of a private visit. If the opposition had done some more research, they would have realised that the Government of Malaysia had been transparent and clear on the status of the visit since news of it first broke.

Based on contemporary US protocol, the President of the United States may extend an invitation to a Head of State or Head of Government for an official working visit or a working visit. The length and components of these two categories of visits are considered on a visit-by-visit basis. Such invitations are usually reserved for more substantive talks, and are detached from the more ceremonial elements of a state visit or an official visit. Working visits will include a working meeting, and media involvement is not obligatory.

Notwithstanding the status of a visit, an invitation from the US President also signifies that the US as host government officially recognises the foreign dignitary, as well as the importance of the visit in the context of bilateral relations.

In contrast, a private visit occurs when a Head of State or Head of Government arrives in the United States without an invitation from the US President. A private visit does not include a visit to the White House.

Upon their arrival at US Air Force Joint Base Andrews, YAB Prime Minister and YBhg. Datin Sri Rosmah Mansor were accorded full courtesies commensurate for a working visit.

At the White House, YAB Prime Minister was warmly received by President Trump himself upon the former’s arrival. Both leaders met for 20 minutes in the historic Oval Office, accompanied by their most senior diplomats. This was followed by a 40-minute delegation meeting in the Cabinet Room, of which around 5 minutes of the open session was widely covered by the US and international media.

The most senior and influential members of President Trump’s administration were present at the delegation meeting, notably Vice President Mike Pence, State Secretary Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Advisor HR McMaster, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, and US Ambassador to Malaysia Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir. This demonstrates the US’s high regard to YAB Prime Minister and his delegation.

The events at Joint Base Andrews and the White House were thus very much in line with US protocol for working visits. In fact, YAB Prime Minister was also sent off personally by President Trump when departing from the White House, in line with the President’s own wishes. This is a departure from protocol that somehow certain opposition politicians fail to factor in.

By the same measure, the opposition’s claim that the visit was a private visit because YAB Prime Minister did not reside in Blair House is also misleading. Blair House is offered by the US President for foreign dignitaries on state, official or official working visits.

However, past practice has seen several leaders decline to stay there during their visits for various reasons, including Indian PM Narendra Modi, At least one foreign leader had also used the Trump International Hotel for accommodation during his working visit to Washington DC earlier this year.

YAB Dato’ Sri Najib has been consistent in strengthening US-Malaysia relations ever since he took office as Prime Minister, regardless of who is occupying the White House. It should also be noted that President Barack Obama visited Malaysia twice. This, and the fact that this visit occurred less than a year after President Trump took office, are demonstrations of the importance that the U.S. attaches to Malaysia and the warmth of our bilateral relations, a far cry from the days of a certain former prime minister.

Thus, It can only be concluded that the unwarranted attacks on YAB Prime Minister reflect the shallow-mindedness of those who made these allegations with their simplistic understanding on our bilateral relations with the United States. Going forward, I would suggest that future comments and observations on how YAB Prime Minister conducts Malaysia’s foreign policy are made based on facts, and not conjecture.

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