U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed ways to advance mutual security and economic interests while meeting Friday with Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during a brief courtesy call overshadowed by global issues, officials said.
Pompeo, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Kuala Lumpur since the election triumph ended six decades of one-party rule in Malaysia, met Mahathir at the start of his four-day visit to Asia, which was aimed at promoting Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Pompeo congratulated the 93-year-old Malaysian leader for the peaceful transition of authority after the May 9 election, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
“They discussed ways to work together to strengthen the U.S.-Malaysia Comprehensive Partnership based on shared democratic values, including advancing mutual security and economic interests across the Indo-Pacific,” Nauert said, referring to the 30-minute visit.
Pompeo arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday evening on his way to Singapore, a global trading hub, where he was expected to hold sit-downs with ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
During his arrival in Singapore, Pompeo also held talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu on the sidelines of the regional gathering. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho is attending the ministerial-level event and U.S. officials have indicated a meeting with Pompeo might take place.
Neither Mahathir nor Pompeo issued any public comments, but an aide to the U.S. official said they shook hands and briefly talked about the opposition bloc’s reformist alliance that defeated Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition after more than six decades in power.
An aide to Mahathir declined to comment, telling BenarNews that the meeting, which took place at the prime minister’s office in the administrative capital Putrajaya, was private.
Pompeo was accompanied by U.S. ambassador to Malaysia Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir during the meeting attended by Malaysia’s Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu and Deputy Foreign Minister Marzuki Yahya.
Washington’s Indo-Pacific vision, which was meant to reshape America’s regional approach and coalesce efforts to manage a rising China, was rolled out in June.
In a speech in Washington on Monday, Pompeo alluded that his Southeast Asian trip will touch on Beijing’s moves to assert sovereignty over disputed areas of the South China Sea.
China, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have wrangled over territorial claims in the South China Sea, but tension steadily increased in recent years after Beijing’s island-building and naval patrols in the contested Spratly Islands and other rocky outcrops and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.
While Pompeo was en route to Kuala Lumpur, a senior State Department official told reporters that he was expected to discuss with Mahathir “our vision for an open, transparent, rules-based region.”
“When we say ‘free’ Indo-Pacific, it means we all want all nations, every nation, to be able to protect their sovereignty from coercion by other countries,” Pompeo said in his Washington speech.
“When we say ‘open’ in the Indo-Pacific, it means we want all nations to enjoy open access to seas and airways. We want the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes,” he said.
While emphasizing that it does not take sides in the dispute, Washington has recently sent navy ships and planes near the disputed islands in what it calls as “freedom of navigation” patrols.
Mahathir: ‘Warships attracts other warships’
In Malaysia, Mahathir repeatedly called for fewer warships in the South China Sea, saying “warships attracts other warships.”
“This is because some countries, which see other countries having warships here, are already asking if they should also be sending theirs. That’s not healthy,” Mahathir told a June 7 news conference. “We prefer if there are no warships around Malaysia.”
Aside from the South China Sea on the east coast of the peninsula, Malaysia on its west coast shares with Indonesia the narrow Straits of Malacca, one of the major bottlenecks in global shipping routes.
A senior U.S. State Department official told reporters that in line with President Donald Trump’s objectives, Pompeo’s meeting with Mahathir aimed at continuing free and fair trade relations.
“Malaysia as an economy is one of the big success stories in the Asia Pacific and has come a long way in the last few decades,” the official said.
On Twitter, Pompeo said he was impressed by Malaysia‘s economic development and dynamism.
“We’re proud of our strong partnership with American companies that do business here and I look forward to deepening our partnership on a range of issues,” he tweeted Friday.