KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Nov. 9, 2010 - Citing opportunities to expand a 25-year military partnership in ways that benefit both countries and the entire region, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Malaysia.

Gates, paying his first visit to Malaysia, declared during a joint news conference with Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi the “strong state” of the bilateral relationship and areas where it can expand to address current and emerging challenges and threats.

During his meeting with Hamidi and a phone conversation with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is recuperating after a hospital stay, Gates and the Malaysian leaders explored some of those areas, including counterterrorism, counterproliferation and maritime security.

They also discussed increasing military-to-military engagements, with more combined exercises aimed at “enhancing our ability to operate together,” Gates said.

The secretary praised Malaysia’s “strong record as a leader in peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts,” and said he and his Malaysian hosts discussed “ways to work together to bolster that capability further.”

The secretary said he also thanked Malaysia for its contribution to Afghanistan, where it has deployed a 40-member medical team to serve alongside medics from New Zealand in Bamiyan province.

The United States and Malaysia “share a desire to combat extremism, strengthen the rule of law and promote economic development” in Afghanistan, Gates said. They also share a belief in the principles that are key to the region’s prosperity, the secretary added, including “free and open commerce, adherence to the rule of law and international norms, open access by all to the global commons of sea, air space and now cyberspace, and the principle of resolving conflict without the use of force.”

“It is our shared belief in these principles that has led the U.S. and Malaysia to the strong defense relationship we have today,” Gates said. “These are the principles that will continue to guide us as we take on new security challenges, together with other nations in the region, in the years to come.”

Gates said he hopes his visit, just a week after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s stop here, sends a clear message that the United States is committed to its relationship with Malaysia.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Gates said the United States welcomes China’s role in this expanded relationship, including participation in multinational exercises. He suggested humanitarian assistance and disaster response exercises as a good starting point. “Every country in the region has an interest in this capability,” he said.

Hamidi, also responding to a reporter, recognized Malaysia’s relationship with China that dates back more than 1,000 years. “We both need each other,” he said, denying that Malaysia in any way feels “bullied” by Beijing’s activities in the region.