KUALA LUMPUR: US President Barack Obama arrived in Malaysia on Saturday hoping to energize relations with the predominantly Muslim country and re-focus a four-nation Asian tour repeatedly distracted by foreign-policy crises elsewhere.
Obama 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.
But hotspots elsewhere in the world have repeatedly intruded.
In earlier visits to allies Japan and South Korea, the US leader was forced to deal with the spiralling confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, a faltering Middle East peace process, and perennial bugbear North Korea.
In South Korea on Saturday, Obama called North Korea a “pariah state” after satellite images suggested it was preparing for its fourth atomic weapons test despite a ban by the international community.
Just hours earlier, North Korean state media claimed authorities there were holding a young US citizen because of “rash behavior” while passing through immigration.
Obama called the tense 38th parallel dividing North and South a border “between a democracy that is growing and a pariah state that would rather starve its people than feed their hopes and dreams.”
On Friday night, Obama had to rush from dinner with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye to convene a conference call with European leaders aimed at toughening sanctions on Russia over Ukraine.
Big chunks of Obama’s news conferences with Park and, earlier, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, were devoted to long explanations of his plans to thwart Putin or vows to stick with Middle East peacemaking.
“I don’t have the luxury of choosing just one problem at a time,” Obama told a South Korean journalist who wondered if his attention was being diverted.
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.
But Malaysia also is a close trading partner of China and disagrees with aspects of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which also has met resistance in Japan.
The president is expected to try to ease Malaysian concerns on the TPP when he meets Najib on Sunday.
But simmering problems such as Ukraine could yet intrude again during Obama’s two-night Malaysian stay.
Obama said on Friday in Seoul that Washington had already lined up more targeted sanctions against Russia “that are ready to go.”
US officials have said the measures would only be considered if Russia sent regular forces into volatile eastern Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said EU foreign ministers would meet soon to discuss the issue.
“Given the absence of progress, we have to think about—and not just think about, but act on—the option of new sanctions,” Merkel said.
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’s four-nation tour of Asia began in Japan, where he offered Abe assurances that the US was treaty-bound to act if China moved militarily against Japanese-controlled islands at the center of a bitter territorial dispute.
Obama meets Malaysia’s king Saturday and attends a state dinner.
On Sunday, he visits the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur and has talks with Najib, before a “town hall” meeting with youth leaders from around Southeast Asia.
He leaves Monday morning for the Philippines.