Barack Obama has arrived in Malaysia hoping to energise relations with the predominantly Muslim country and re-focus a four-nation Asian tour repeatedly distracted by foreign-policy crises elsewhere.
Obama on Saturday became the first serving US president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966 as he tours Asia to underscore his “rebalance” of US attention toward the strategic Asia-Pacific and push a stalled regional trade pact.
Battling image problems in the Islamic world, Washington is keen to improve its relationship with economically successful, moderate-Muslim Malaysia.
Relations were acrimonious during the 1981-2003 tenure of authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad, a harsh critic of US policies.
But trade ties remained solid and Prime Minister Najib Razak is seeking a closer relationship, including on defence.
Malaysia is among several nations with competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s assertiveness has sparked alarm.
In a Malaysian newspaper interview published Saturday, Obama touted growing security cooperation with Malaysia as a way to ensure “freedom of navigation in critical waterways” and that nations “play by the same rules” – a clear reference to China.
Malaysia is a close trading partner of China and disagrees with aspects of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which has met resistance in Japan.
The president is expected to try to ease Malaysian concerns on the TPP when he meets Najib on Sunday.
In Malaysia, Obama will tread a line between courting Najib and acknowledging the huge numbers in the multi-cultural nation who are fed up with the corruption-plagued coalition in power for 57 years.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim called the government a “corrupt and authoritarian regime” in a statement Saturday, urging Obama to stand up for “freedom and democracy”.
Obama and Najib will hold talks on Sunday, before the US president attends a “town hall” meeting with youth leaders from around Southeast Asia.
The president leaves travels to the Philippines on Monday.