US envoy sees growing ties with Malaysia

WASHINGTON, July 21, 2010 (AFP) - The nominee to be the next US ambassador to Malaysia on Wednesday forecast growing cooperation between the countries and praised the Southeast Asian nation's first deployment to Afghanistan.

"US-Malaysian relations are showing signs of growth," career diplomat Paul Jones said in his confirmation hearing before the Senate, which is likely to approve him.

"Malaysia's recent decision to deploy medical/reconstruction support troops to Afghanistan will contribute to international stabilization efforts," said Jones, now the deputy US special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Muslim-majority Malaysia this month started the deployment of a 40-member medical unit to Afghanistan's Bamiyan province, where they will work with New Zealand medics.

While Malaysia said the decision came at the request of the Afghan government, it was seen in Washington as the latest sign of a thaw in the long frosty ties between Malaysia and the United States.

Malaysia's veteran former leader Mahathir Mohamad was a strident critic of US foreign policy. Current Prime Minister Najib Razak paid a rare visit to Washington in April and met President Barack Obama at a summit on boosting nuclear security.

Jones also praised cooperation between the Malaysian and US militaries to secure the Malacca Strait, a critical channel for oil to East Asian economies.

Malaysia has "a particularly strong relationship with the Pacific Command, which I certainly intend to continue and encourage," Jones said.

Jones did not ignore concerns, saying: "The continued strengthening of democracy and rule of law in Malaysia remains a priority interest for the United States."

Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is on trial for sodomy charges which he says are politically motivated.